Rookie of the Year

Cosmic Dancer

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #112. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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A tongue-in-cheek but also painfully earnest look at pop culture and anything else that deserves to be ridiculed while at the same time regarded with the utmost respect. It is written by Matt Marrone and emailed to Stu Horvath, who adds any typos or factual errors that might appear within.

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Is a 115-minute movie worth watching only for a single scene? If we’re talking about Alex Garland’s Annihilation, I’d argue yes.

The auteur’s 2018 followup to Ex Machina is nowhere near as good as that film. It’s packed with atrocious dialogue, poor acting and cargo bay-sized plot holes. On the whole, I’d say skip it. Except . . .

. . . Except at the very end, there’s that scene in the lighthouse. Natalie Portman’s alien encounter is both horrifying and refreshing; few sci-fi flicks give us anything as unconventional and beautiful. The many scenes before it and the final scenes after it don’t measure up, but it’s enough.

Portman enters the Shimmer – a mysterious, expanding force field in Florida into which many have gone but nearly none have come back. She and her ragtag ops team – a team so unprepared and ill-conceived it’s nearly impossible to suspend disbelief – discover the Shimmer is a prism, one that not only refracts light and sound but DNA, remixing the elements of life on Earth into mutant creatures and plants. Some of what they find in the Shimmer is monstrous, some of it surreal, some of it profoundly disturbing, some of it marvelous. Little of what happens to them matters in the end, really, because the movie is worthwhile only for that single scene in the lighthouse, when Portman enters Ground Zero, the spot where the alien life-form landed and the Shimmer began.

There is a bizarre sequence with Chantal Hutchens, er Jennifer Jason Leigh, but you can check Twitter while that’s going on. It’s what happens immediately after that counts. Deep inside a hole in the lighthouse wall, an amorphous blob of CGI vacuums in a single drop of Portman’s blood from under her eye and turns it into a faceless, featureless green humanoid clone. Startled, she races back into the lighthouse proper – where the clone is waiting. As she tries to fight it, kill it or simply escape, the clone mirrors her movements and it becomes a dance. Horror, sci-fi and choreography meld into something I’ve watched just once but is so vivid in my mind I started tapping out this column and couldn’t stop.

The movie ends on an on-the-nose cliffhanger – Portman sets the clone on fire and humanity is saved! But wait! Her and her husband are now clones! Or just new versions of themselves evolving and spreading the effects of the Shimmer! Look at their eyes! – but the dance is worth all the eye-rolling. And it states the case for what the movie is about better than when the script spells it out with endless flashbacks, flash-forwards and dull explication.

The things that happen to us change us. We evolve. And like what the characters face in Annihilation – a marriage falling apart, cancer, an alien invasion – it’s not inherently good or evil. It just is. It’s the dance we’re all in the midst of, a struggle with ourselves and the external forces that stretch, squeeze and ultimately define us.

Maybe Annihilation didn’t need those 115 minutes to get there. But it was more about the destination than the journey.

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Matt Marrone is a senior MLB editor at ESPN.com. He has been Unwinnable’s reigning Rookie of the Year since 2011. You can follow him on Twitter @thebigm.

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