As a writer, Alex Garland has had a hand in some of the best sci-fi of the 21st Century with 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd under his belt. He continued that trend into his directorial debut, Ex_Machina, which ended up as my top film for that year. When his latest film, Annihilation, got in the news for being considering too ‘smart’ for the average audience and sent straight to Netflix everywhere except the US, Canada, and China, you couldn’t help but wonder exactly how smart Garland had made his film. Especially, when you factor in that both Garland and one of the producers refused to bow into the studio demands to dumb the movie down.
Having now finally seen it, I’m glad Garland stuck to his guns because Annihilation is one of the most unapologetic cases of Hard Sci-Fi I’ve seen for a while.
The film follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist who’s trying to get over the loss of her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who went missing on assignment over a year ago. That is until Kane shows up out of the blue at the start of the film, but with no memory of what happened to him, how he got home, or what sickness is slowly killing him. The pair are picked up by the military who take them to a secure facility on the Southern Coast known as Area X. The location had been quarantined three years ago when an extra-terrestrial object crashed into a lighthouse and began forming its own environment around it with a barrier called ‘The Shimmer’ surrounding it, and slowly growing in size since it landed. Teams of soldiers have been sent into ‘The Shimmer,’ but to date, Kane is the only one to have returned. Still looking for answers is an all-female team of scientist consisting of Lena, paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) and psychiatrist/team leader, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are to be sent on a suicide mission into ‘The Shimmer’ and see if they can make any sense as to what’s been happening.
Almost immediately, the team realizes that ‘The Shimmer’ is having an adverse effect on them with time and locations being near impossible to keep track of. More than that, the flora and fauna around them exhibits impossible characteristics creating a beautiful but dangerous environment. As the team push deeper, they find their surroundings making less and less sense with tensions high and a fear of the unknown tearing away at them. With no other option, the team pushes forward hoping to find something that makes sense of this terrifying world they’ve found themselves in.
I am being deliberately vague because the story is a lot more cerebral than you think, there’s comes a certain point where you start recognizing what is really happening to the team, and how it factors into the themes of self-destruction. It’s not an easy watch and while there’s enough to theorize, no straight answers are ever given, it’s the best type of sci-fi that opens discussions about what ‘The Shimmer’ is, what is did to the team, and what it ultimately represents on a psychological level. The final act in particular is the most confusing element of the whole thing, but also the piece that brings the central themes to the forefront. I’ll definitely need to revisit this at some point now that I have a clearer picture of the arc and see how it ties everything together.
The acting was solid, but clearly not the film’s main focus, outside of Portman, it felt like the characters were designed to be part of the story rather than separate entities inhabiting it. What I mean is that each member of the team factors into the theme of self-destruction, and that in turn, factors into ‘The Shimmer’ itself. In a roundabout way, they become their own worst enemies without even realizing it. There’s enough development to attach yourself to the team, but the main focus is more on the world, and everything around it.
Cass presented herself as an observer of the group, sticking to the background, but getting a read on everyone, she’s the one who introduces the team’s own self-destructive tendencies through her conversations with Lena, including her own demons suffering from a loss. Out of everyone, Cass keeps the calmest about the situation surrounding them, often acting as the voice of reason even when utterly terrified herself because she knows someone needs to keep their head straight when everyone else is losing theirs.
Anya takes on a more volatile role, the stress clearly getting to her even early on when she tries to apply logic to the illogical, and just gets more stressed out. Although if Cass is to believe Anya is missing a certain illicit something to keep her going. After a certain point, the only thing that makes sense to her is to leave, but Ventress’ insistence on pushing forward puts them at odds. You can definitely see where Anya is coming from, but her paranoia makes her dangerous, and it leads to one of the most tense scenes of the film.
Josie has an almost spiritual awakening during her time in ‘The Shimmer.’ Initially she’s one of the most scared in the group, with several unexplained discoveries terrifying her to the point of willing to risk certain danger just to escape the horrors, but the deeper the team go into ‘The Shimmer,’ the more she starts to understand, or at least theorize, how it all works. Again, according to Cass, Josie self-harms or harmed at one point in her life in an attempt to feel alive. Her eventual recognition of this world, and its effect plays into a sense of disturbed acceptance, where she goes and what she does is as beautiful as it is disturbing.
Leigh takes on Dr. Ventress, leader of the team, and almost right away you can tell that Ventress has stopped giving a shit. Being one of the top members of Area X, she’s sent hundreds of people into ‘The Shimmer’ and has hundreds of presumed deaths on her conscience, while her need to be a cold-hearted bitch stems from her need to not let the guilt overwhelm her. While she claims to want to enter ‘The Shimmer’ to finally get a look at what’s killing her people, her actual reasons to heading inside are a lot more personal and destructive. It manifested itself as a complete lack of fear, but once you know why she’s not scared, it makes her actions all the more questionable and dangerous.
Aside from Isaac’s limited role as Kane – not much to go on but sold distant well – the only other character worth mentioning is Lena who tackles a much more difficult role than you might expect. It’s easy to sympathize with Lena at first because she’s just found her lost husband, but risks losing him again to this mysterious illness. The film doesn’t make it easy to keep liking her, her standoffish nature can be explained away with stress, but the film reveals a few things Lena has done before she entered ‘The Shimmer,’ while not totally character destroying her, does put her in a less favorable light. Unlike the rest of the team, the argument can be made that Lena has already self-destructed and is using this place as a way of healing and atoning for what she did. When you factor in the psychological effects of ‘The Shimmer,’ this line of thinking makes sense towards the final act. This is a good role for Portman who nails the subtleties of the character, someone who has a need to survive, but a want for an end, the battle flashing across her face whenever she comes across another unexplained phenomenon; the ending in particular relies a lot on her body language.
As previously stated, the acting isn’t the film’s main focus, so this is 100% Garland’s film, and he delivers on all cylinders here. Even just on an aesthetic level, this film is truly unique with a color palette too bright and vibrant to showcase any of the true horrors within ‘The Shimmer.’ And yet still unsettling enough not to catch you off-guard, a body trapped to the wall with flowers, and plants naturally building themselves into human-shapes. And that’s just the nice stuff, when Garland wants to go dark he goes dark; an impromptu autopsy on a living body reveals something that should not be anywhere near a human body, let alone inside it. While the film’s most terrifying sequence involves a bear, I won’t spoil what’s so special about the bear, but it’s honestly one of the most disturbing creatures I’ve seen – and heard – for a long time.
But of course this is a sci-fi film and Garland is able to capture that sense of existential horror that can only come from a film that’s questioning the very nature of humanity. Everything inside ‘The Shimmer’ seems to have been corrupted or changed in some unnatural way, often containing elements of two of more different species in one impossible creation, and it gets worse the closer the team gets to ground zero. The impact site with the blur between all living things becoming harder to define. It plays out like a reversal of evolution, everything converging together to a single place, the origins of a new universe with the team inadvertently finding themselves converging as well.
This is where the self-destruction theme comes into play, everyone who’s gone into ‘The Shimmer’ has known they’re on a suicide mission, and the environment has developed to reflect that. The world both inside and outside of ‘The Shimmer’ are constantly changing with creation and destruction occurring countless times daily, it’s just inside this world that it happens on a much faster and more cerebral scale. The annihilation of the title is not worldwide but internal; there’s a strong case to be made that the film is actually an analogy for depression with a volatile world threatening to tear the team to shreds. With Lean’s will to survive pushing them all forward, it can also be seen as a reversal of evolution with all impossible inhabiting elements of two or more species, eventually converging as one single cell the closer the team got to the impact site. Or it could be about a personal journey of forgiveness with Lena trying to let go of all separate elements of herself (rational, paranoid, spiritual and brash) in order to allow her to forgive herself and continue her relationship with Kane.
Like all great sci-fi films, the answers to Annihilation are not clear and you can take the film a hundred different ways in both metaphorical and literal directions. It’s definitely not going to be for everyone and the final act in The Lighthouse is going to put a lot of people off with its psychedelic visuals and distressing soundtrack. But for anyone that can give it their full attention (and a couple more viewings) there’s something very special here, Garland has crafted something confusing, enticing, terrifying and thought-provoking. It’s not easy, but it never said it would be.
I am giving Annihilation a 5 out of 5 Hairpieces!