Annihilation / Jessica Jones season 2


Either I’m getting jaded from Too Much TV, or both of these recently released Netflix properties were somewhat disappointing.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever read any of Jeff VanderMeer’s fiction. One of the oddest things about the science fiction field is that, even after 45 years or so of reading it, there are still a tremendous number of writers I’ve never read. It’s comforting, in a way.

Anyway, I read nothing about Annihilation before settling down to watch it, on the recommendation of two different people. It’s based on a novel by VanderMeer.

I have until now totally ignored Netflix’s one-off/movie offerings. Not a single one of them has appealed to me. I know a lot about movies and I know what I like, and I generally don’t like things made in the last 15-20 years. If I invest two hours in something, I generally want more of it (TV style), because I’d have made a choice, usually, to watch a second episode. But a two-hour film can steal two hours of your time and then leave you with a shitty/lame ending, either because they didn’t know how to end it, or because they intended to make a sequel. A case in point: the movie Life, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, has a trick ending that’s a total swizz, based on cheeky editing.

Annihilation started slowly, with a framing device that already put me on guard, because it revealed that the protagonist was the sole survivor of something. This meant that I didn’t emotionally invest or care about any of the other characters because I knew they were going to die. Neither did I invest in the flashbacks, which struck me as lacking in affect and underplayed, and not really illuminating the main plot. A lot of the reviews of this film make the case that it’s somehow doing something different, but if you’ve been reading science fiction for 45 years, it’s really not.

Once the premise was revealed, I was reminded of something I had read, which is Ian McDonald’s Chaga series of stories and novels, about a slowly unfolding singularity event borne to Earth on a meteor, and spreading across Africa like a slow motion version of the “Genesis Effect” in that Star Trek movie.

Like much science fiction, you’d consider these kinds of books unfilmable. You could do it with CGI, of course, but it would be mostly animation, which I tend to find uninvolving. Actors staring at tennis balls on poles in front of green screens are rarely convincing. Anyway, VanderMeer’s books are slightly different, it turns out, but there was still a lot of CGI animation in this film, and my reaction wasn’t wow, as some critics’ seems to have been.

Five women, supposedly scientists, head into a mysterious area that has been colonised by some kind of  possibly alien organism. I say “supposedly” scientists, because they’re dressed in military fatigues and carrying automatic weapons, and they don’t really do much science. In fact, most of the time they act exactly like the space marine grunts in Aliens.

They make a series of illogical and dumb decisions, upon which the whole flimsy plot rests. Science fiction is good at creating Big Ideas and Wonder, but it often doesn’t translate to film very well. I’m kind of dreading Amazon’s attempt at Ringworld, if it ever appears. Once you’ve done the worldbuilding, you’ve basically got a giant ring around a star and it takes forever to get anywhere. (One SF writer who does do interesting things with human stories is Robert Charles Wilson. TV execs take note: you could film The Chronoliths, Spin, or Last Year and you could do better than this.)

Jennifer Jason Leigh is present in Annihilation, in a distant and affectless way. Natalie Portman has a bit more to do, but not much, and you always know how it will end.

There are some interesting ideas: lost time, for example, but not much is done with these ideas. There’s a bunch of CGI and some nice photography. Dialogue is strained and peremptory.

A trick ending. I might have a go with the books, to see if they’re better.

Jessica Jones is back for Season 2, and I found myself similarly uninvolved. The problem, I think, is the same one that afflicts a lot of these Netflix/Marvel shows. They make 13 episodes, but they only have 8–10 episodes of story. So it drifts a bit, and you stop paying attention, and then you wonder what’s happening, and then you don’t care.

So, Jessica Jones, then

landscape_xlargeI signed up for a Netflix 30-day trial and apart from music documentaries, what the kids and I have mainly been watching is Jessica Jones.

I’m no fan of superheroes and comic books, so I always come to a thing like this knowing nothing or next to nothing about it. I read up on Jessica Jones on the Wikipedia after about three episodes. If you’re like me: she’s got powers (somehow) but her life is a wreck. She has super-strength, but isn’t a particularly good fighter, because she’s had no actual training. The backstory is that she has previously tried the (costumed?) superhero life, but something went horribly wrong, and now she’s trying to run a film noir-style private detective agency called Alias.

Spoiler alert.

The thing that went horribly wrong for her, which she thought was over and done with, comes back into her life. It takes the form of Kilgrave (David Tenant), who (somehow) can force people to do horrible things.

Jones is played by Krysten Ritter, who some might recognise from Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23, of which I watched about half an episode. She plays the part in blue jeans and a black leather jacket, and the character is a hard-drinking, self-destructive loner, whose PTSD is a crippling burden.

This is a universe in which superheroes are acknowledged to exist, and regular people are both frightened of them and angry about the destruction caused by property-destroying superhero battles. So there are oblique references to events in other films. There are even other superheroes: Luke Cage (who will have in own series), and a nurse from Daredevil both make an appearance.

Tenant is a decent enough villain, chewing the furniture in a purple jacket, and committing horrific acts of violence. It gets dark, very dark, and not everybody gets out alive.

For the last three or four episodes I was worried that there wouldn’t be a conclusion to the main story, that it would be hung over for a season 2. I felt that this would represent a waste of the time I’d invested in watching the series. If a narrative has no resolution, they’re asking you to invest another 13 hours, and, well, I might not be in a position to do that. Buffy, at least, dealt with each Big Bad by the end of the season.

Yes, it has some of the vibe of the later, darker, Buffy, and I thought it was worth a watch as a woman-led series with a woman as show runner. It’s well done, and both my girls really enjoyed it.

And it is worth watching, and you won’t feel you’ve wasted your investment of time.