and i haven’t written about them, but after watching annihilation, i feel like i don’t have any choice. that thing is going to stick in my head until i flesh it out. the other two will be brief.
we start in Wakanda.
i watched the black panther
if you haven’t seen this movie yet… wtf? lets go. come on. get up, out of your chairs, and i want you to go to the window, and yell… nothing, actually, just follow your head with the rest of your body and then go to the movie.
black panther is a blast, just a lot of fun. it’s a really well-paced action movie, and it’s pretty to look at in a unique style, and the music is awesome. seriously, i saw people annoyed that the villain came in with the same theme music as usual but set to a trap beat, like that said “trap is bad.” my dudes, the villain is from oakland. the beat is meant to call back to his roots, not say trap is bad. good lord.
but also, and this is where spoilers start, it’s a movie that–you don’t have to! you can just root for T’Challa!–if you want to, there’s plenty to think about. the villain isn’t even really a villain. he changes the protagonist’s viewpoint. how many movies you’ve seen do that?
i’m not going to critique how this movie treats killmonger’s plan, or t’challa’s, or isolated wakanda, mainly because i don’t really think it’s my place to do that. black people have got it covered and you should read a few reviews by black writers. my job is to shut up and listen on that front. but also because, i don’t think this movie asks you to. it simply says, on one hand, we have the traditional way wakanda does things, african people doing incredible things and keeping an eye on what’s going on outside their country, all secretly. on the other, we have, not exactly radical black liberation, but kind of a caricature of it. maybe liberation with a healthy dose of vengeance. if you’re #teamkillmonger, and you’re not an authoritarian, the instant he says “the new wakandan empire,” every single hair on the back of your arms should have shot up and said NOPE. so i’m immediately skeptical of reviewers who call this movie a slag on black liberation because he’s not that, he’s another imperialist, just carrying a vibranium banner.
the movie doesn’t ask you to choose him. it also doesn’t ask you to choose the sort of neoliberal conclusion t’challa settles on. it merely asks you to consider: does killmonger have a point? does he have several points? where does he go too far? same for t’challa. check out the white guy’s place in this story: does it look familiar to other movies to you? how’d you feel about the nationalism behind the guards that protected killmonger until it was clear t’challa wasn’t dead? really? whoever is on the throne? i don’t think this movie so much has a message, which is the brilliance of it. it merely reflects the very best–and the very worst–of several possible perspectives, and asks you to consider, or not, if you so choose.
(i for the record was on team nakia from the minute we met her and lupita n’yongo is so goddamn good in this movie holy shit. go find a review that talks about how important this movie’s women are.)
and i watched three billboards outside ebbing, missouri
and i sort of hated it? it’s a very compelling movie with outstanding performances of terrible people whose terribleness is never justified by the movie in a meaningful way. two things.
1: this movie relies heavily on the junior-highest idea of how TV reporting works i have ever seen. throw your “in this reporter’s opinion” line in the shredder, imagine a world where news outlets ask you for comment before airing a story about you, and in general, shut the hell up.
2: if someone asked me to explain how white people deal with bigotry and awfulness, i would just watch this movie with them. because they simply don’t. they call it out when it’s extremely blatant, even then do nothing, and then ignore it when the racist/homophobe/abuser/whateveryouwant are on your side about something. at least peter dinklage’s dwarf character taking abuse all movie culminates in him walking away the only damn white person in this whole town deserving your support, and he knows it, and he makes sure she knows it. and it’s real hard for the argument to be “yes this is all the point” when the movie itself just disregards graphic domestic violence, punctuates it with a joke, moves along like nothing happened. when the casual fslurs in this movie are neither deserved nor warranted nor even directed at anyone on screen–they’re just there, i guess to remind me i don’t belong in this town? when even the black characters in this movie are either no-dimensional plot devices or themselves victims of racist overpolicing, which is pretty much ignored. sure, lady burns down the station, but the guy who threw her friend in jail without bond over two joints is LITERALLY IN THE CAR WITH HER DRIVING TO IDAHO. AND SHE DOESN’T CARE. AND NEITHER DOES THE MOVIE.
3: yes this is more than two but POLICE STATIONS HAVE MORE THAN ONE WAY IN AND OUT. GO OUT THE BACK DOOR IF THE FRONT IS ON FIRE YOU ABSOLUTE, EMPTYHEADED i dont know what i’m bad at insults.
and i watched annihilation.
so that movie… was… a trip and a half. if you aren’t familiar with the source material (i wasn’t myself) then i need you to understand the marketing is goddamn terrible. just terrible. this movie is a trippy sci fi adventure. and it is at many points, deeply demented. there’s one spook in here that i an atheist can only characterize as demonic. it usually isn’t but it has a couple of moments where it is graphic and not easy to watch. i was not expecting this level of descent into madness from the marketing, so you might not be either.
if you’re into dark, heady scifi, intricately worked themes, weird natalie portman movies, and you’re fine with a couple sequences of really screwed up imagery, (but not looking for like a horror movie), this movie is for you. it’s really smart. it’s not great, and i’ll splain why, but it’s very good. it’s visually stunning. but you can’t shut your brain off. you gotta keep up with the theming and what’s going on. if you can’t do that or if you get squeamish about super-twisted shit, it’s not for you, it will just be like a bad acid trip.
spoilers to follow.
i really think the key to understanding this movie lies in one line said by the leader/psychologist. okay look i cant remember all (any?) of the names in this movie. so here is who i will refer to:
the leader: the team leader. dr v-something i think. the psychologist with cancer.
natalie portman’s character.
tessa thompson’s self-harm survivor.
bear-lady: the other white lady who gets eaten by a bear.
enya: the addict whose name i misheard as enya and never got that out of my head.
when natalie portman accosts the team leader about why she thinks her husband signed up for a suicide mission, the team leader explains precisely what the shimmer represents in (95% of) this movie [para.]: “a suicide mission? do you think that’s what this is? people confuse suicide with self-destruction. almost no one commits suicide. almost all of us self-destruct.”
the shimmer is, for the vast majority of this movie, not just a “prism that refracts DNA.” it’s an exploration into self-destruction. when people self-destruct they do crazy stuff that makes no sense. each member of the all-female team go on some symbolic journey of self-destruction in the shimmer, and the film’s job is poking at why they do what they do, and at what happens to them.
i’ll start with the leader, she’s easy. she has terminal cancer and is not fighting it. she’s dying, she knows she’s dying, and when she reaches the lighthouse, she’s just gives in and melts away. the psychologist has decided she is going to face death head on and see what it holds for her. so she goes into the shimmer, to the source of it all, and is consumed. she doesn’t fight ever. she keeps watch, she remains cautious and vigilant, and then, is consumed. she could fight this, but she chooses not to. she faces it. she says herself that the lifestyle choices we make are a form of self-destruction.
bear-lady has the most tragic of the five’s backstories. she lost a young daughter to some disease or something, it doesn’t really matter exactly, she’s just totally blindsided by a crushing life event and, in her own words, “it’s like I lost myself too,” that’s not verbatim but she describes just not being her anymore in the wake of this loss. so what happens to her in the shimmer is pretty much exactly this. she’s blindsided by a bear in the dark and killed before anyone can do anything. but she isn’t gone. the horror she’s gone through comes back in the GOD DAMN DEMONIC PIGBEAR EATING HER VOICE OMG THAT WAS CREEPS. she is gone, she has been totally destroyed, and yet, she still exists, still is alive through this DEMONBEAR I REBUKE YOU. she becomes a shell of that horror, and that’s pretty much it. it meshes, maybe not seamlessly, but decently enough her money line that we started this paragraph with. a sudden, random catastrophe has left her feeling like nothing but a horrid, shrieking voice of agony. is that self destruction? not exactly. she doesn’t choose this. but sometimes this path chooses us.
we can’t talk about bear-lady without talking about enya, who, claps for movie including a gay (?) woman of color and that not mattering at all. like she makes a joke hoping for some Natalie Time, doesn’t get it, and we just move along with our lives. it doesn’t play into her story, it’s just who she is. representation!! anyway, i think she had been clean from whatever her addiction was for 10 months in this movie. but then things get traumatic. she loses someone she’s close (?) to, and she starts to become unhinged. she accuses everyone, natalie portman specifically, of actually killing bear-lady. and that’s when the I SAID I REBUKE YOU, PIGBEARDEMON, comes calling, sounding like an old friend… but only bringing destruction. which is one way how a relapse can work. this metaphor was little heavy handed for me, but it’s also the clearest for it, it works the best.
tessa… who i have now seen in two (2) movies and am quickly joining her team, she rocks, and she is here portraying a self-harm survivor who now hides the cliched forearms covered in scars. her path is kind of beautiful to me. i’ll mention this role is tough for me to write about because, heh, wonder why i stopped wearing shorts around high school? so she’s also ultra-smart and walks around the shimmer with a sort of air of wonder about her. that gets her in trouble quickly, when she goes in the house in the swamp and gets attacked by the super-alligator thing because she has no urgency. she still asks for help though. after that cursed creature kills enya, the very next scene, tessa is outside with her arms exposed for the first time. after going through that trauma, she’s not hiding this part of her anymore, she has chosen to embrace it. “she wants to face [the shimmer],” she tells natalie portman. “you want to fight it. i don’t want either of those things.” she’s explored this path of self-destruction and decided she’s ready to embrace it. so she rubs some shimmer-grass into her arms and walks away, mutating in front of our eyes into something else. something new. i’m very grateful to have gotten to see her in this role because it’s written well and she kinda kills it, and it’s super duper meaningful to me in a way languge fails. i have no more metaphor analysis because of the last reason.
so that leaves natalie, and the end of the movie, and my gripes. [dramatic, creepy trombone]
so after the leader rolls credits and explodes, a big floating ball appears. natalie stares into it and a drop of blood is pulled into it from her face. you know that expression “staring into the abyss,” and how it looks back into you?
lets back up. the movie reveals in flashbacks that her husband, special forces, is never home. so sometimes, she’s boinking a coworker. one day, she ends it with him, and tells him that her husband (kane) knows about them. we also see through various bits of film discovered by the team that kane slowly descended into madness himself and eventually blew himself up with a phosphorous grenade, on a mission he left without warning for, a day early. we’re left to wonder whether maybe he chose to leave early because he found out–the timeline isn’t clear. he describes himself being completely eaten up inside, and it’s by mutation from the shimmer, but his wife’s betrayal may be leading him down a path of self-destruction that leads him here, to the lighthouse. he’s filmed and replaced by some sort of mimic, and that’s who natalie was introduced to in the first act. an echo of him. not him–clearly not him. just, something like him.
this version of him, like an unbidden memory, jumps suddenly back into her life. she had taken him for dead and grown obsessed with staying in their bedroom when she wasn’t working. she wouldn’t even hang out with that one coworker in her grief. but when he’s back, well now she has to find out why he went in, what happened to him. and when she finally reaches the lighthouse, she stares into the abyss, the abyss is a bitch and stares back, like it does, and she comes face to face with… a mimic of herself. for me, she didn’t just chase her husband into the shimmer to try to save him out of love. it’s just as much out of guilt. she doesn’t think he would have accepted this mission if they were just happily married. (bear-lady makes a reference to everyone on the team having a story, and specifically mentioned relationship drama.) so now, out of guilt, she defies everything in her way to go make it right, and comes face to face with…herself. she’s unable to get out of her own way and would be stuck there if she didn’t trick the mimic into killing itself with a grenade like kane did.
and that’s where the ending loses me.
killing the mimic destroys the whole shimmer…….? how? why? what happened to for example tessa, or any other people still in it? is this her “working through” her guilt? by coming face-to-face with herself and forcing herself to suffer how he did in the end? see, i would be willing to accept that if the movie just ended there, or if the last shot didn’t reveal that she isn’t exactly herself any more either, that her iris flashes gray just like the kane-mimic’s does. what??? he knows he isn’t kane because he doesn’t have kane’s memory. he’s as stunned as anyone else that he recognizes natalie portman at home. but this is natalie’s character. it’s her. we know this. she knows this. is she changed, sure, but the film implies she’s become a mimic too and that makes no damn sense. plus, her “defeating” the shimmer like some kind of final boss doesn’t make any sense either. her journey was the only one that matters? no one else’s. just hers? okay, movie. all of the theming, all of the metaphors, break down, in about ten minutes. [dramatic trombone.] and then, one last thing.
i love benedict wong. he’s great and he’s wasted in this movie. but can we not include his character at all please? i’m not sure framing this narrative helps, and his character seems to exist only to dumb down and explain the movie. there’s a moment where natalie refuses to tell him something because it made no sense, like “i don’t have to explain this to you,” and he insists. “yes. you do.” then we go through this big extravagant ending, all of these metaphors finally come to a head, and then the movie gives us…benedict wong. “SO IT WAS ALIENS?” “yeah,” natalie agrees. “it was aliens.” it’s as if the movie wants to assure you that if you don’t want it to be, the movie doesn’t have to be that deep. it can just be a trippy ride about a bubble that magically makes your DNA combine with trees and stuff because aliens. y’all, that movie would be GARBAGE.
i call producer meddling on this character, and i call producer meddling on this ending. from what mrs was able to find out online, in the source material the shimmer doesn’t get destroyed. natalie’s character just stays at the lighthouse, colonel kurtz style. and that fucking works a whole lot better than her defeating the shimmer does. but it doesn’t feel complete in the same way. it doesn’t feel like the journey has an end, because the hero does not come home. it isn’t easy to understand, and that’s why i call producer meddling, either that or fundamental lack of understanding of this aspect of the source material.
but yeah it’s a really clever film, stunning, dark as shit and not date material, but you should see it if you’re into such things.