Written and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina), who very loosely adapts the acclaimed Jeff VanderMeer ‘Southern Reach trilogy’ novel of the same name, Annihilation continues the sophomore auteur’s string of challenging genre films that provoke as much thought as they try to entertain, thrill, scare, or delight. For fans of the VanderMeer work, perhaps the film will be a disappointment in the changes made, though it is in keeping with the ‘mutation’ theme of the story, with Garland altering key elements of the story with his own ideas, to the point where the film resembles the book in appearance, but is quite different underneath. For others, the hypnotic explorations contained within will yield enough new thought-provoking ideas that will make the co-opting of the original story worth those mutations to ponder.
One of the first shots of the film is of a meteorite, we presume, crashing into a lighthouse near a national park. Flash forward a couple of years. Natalie Portman (Song to Song, Jackie) stars as medical school biology professor Lena, who ends up leading a five-woman group of scientists for a top-secret government group to explore the Shimmer, a wall of oil-textured, multicolored light containing an area bizarre to behold that no one primarily consisting on members of the military, has survived entering, including unmanned drones doing recon.
One of those soldiers is Kane (Isaac, Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Lena’s husband who she met in her Army days, who has been missing for an entire year after his squad has entered the Shimmer. Lena feels he is as dead as everything else that must enter the realm, but then he appears one day, with no real knowledge of what he has experienced while he was within, other than he feels very ill and not quite like himself. As someone who has studied mutation, Lena is keenly interested in what happened to her husband, both in mind and body, and what she might find behind the Shimmer that has altered him, and the environs behind it, to the core
Visually captivating, especially in the eerie and ominous liquid soap effects that comprise the Shimmer, with yet another example of using sound to deliver tension and frights, just as horrifying as the visuals that accompany them. The area of the Shimmer not only is peppered with strange pastel discolorations in depictions of mutations, but the pervasive sound design persistently gives the effect of an area that it perpetually growing, expanding, and mutating. Accompanying the eerie score and otherworldly effects is the recurring use of the Crosby, Stills & Nash song, “Helplessly Hoping”, which is about as down-home earthly a tune as one can get to accompany events shuttled in from the Twilight Zone.
It’s not a complicated premise, but it finds complex wrinkles in its simplicity, which Garland is determined to explore with great gusto. The ratcheting up of the tension causes paranoia and a questioning of sanity among the group, including in-fighting and a lack of trust in one another, such that many will be reminded of movies like John Carpenter’s The Thing at times, including a scene in which the women are being tested while strapped to chairs. It strikes at the fear we all share, of becoming something other than what we are, whether through a real-world scenario, such as a disease that alters our physical or mental health, or in something alien or fantastical altering our cells and DNA as we experience ourselves not quite feeling ourselves over a slow period of time. There is an uncanny beauty and also a terrifying horror to the mutations found within the Shimmer, as most people find change unsettling in general, and much more so when within a realm in which everything is constantly changing due to shifting DNA.
Dabbling into the notion that things we formerly knew are now uncertain, and people we felt we were connected to are now unclear. Indeed, much of the meaning of the film is going to be left in the mind of the viewer, though there is little doubt that Garland has a concerted angle and message in mind. Reference to one’s own mutations and changes when encountering diseases like cancer extend to the external world, asking us how we might react if a portion of the Earth were to become “infected” with a force that sought to replicate healthy cells with ones that will result in our undoing. What we see within the Shimmer are mutations, both fascinating and grotesque, pushing forward unsettling and frightening images of animals and plants that don’t quite resemble that which we’ve once known.
It’s the kind of science fiction in which the human nemesis is undefined and not embodied in a particular entity. There are other films that speak to alien invasions by forces that aren’t humanoid, or even specific, in appearance, working on a cellular level rather than providing an obvious and mortal target. From Invasion of the Body Snatchers to The Andromeda Strain, we’ve observed the fearsome tales that elements that force biological changes within us could prove our undoing, but Annihilation goes into more philosophical areas, questioning whether this is inherently evil, or just something that we should accept as another aspect of the ever evolving universe we should try to understand. Also like those films, Annihilation is another reminder that life ‘as we know it’ is a fragile existence, subject to extinction, whether by our own poor decisions (nuclear annihilation or lack of care to the environment), new and deadly viral strains, or by forces we don’t understand out in the vast unknown of the universe that may intrude one day.
Annihilation is unsettling, and Garland alternates between not explaining enough in some cases to fully follow the film, and then explaining too much in other areas. Flashbacks to Lena’s prior relationship with her husband, as well as a colleague, fosters a sense of guilt that drives her resolve to find out answers and try to rectify the situation, but they are also among the least interesting elements of a story that works better in its perplexing moments without accompaniment. More interesting is to see how the characters react to persistent change, and in observing whether they determine to either combat it as an enemy, hide from i as if it were a nightmare, try to understand it as a scientific phenomenon, or to embrace it with open arms as a completely natural occurrence. So too does it ask us to react in step in our own views of what we’re seeing transform before our eyes. It’s a freak-show of a film, but one that scratches at uncomfortable itches that will linger with you for a long time after credits roll.
Qwipster’s rating: A-
MPAA Rated: R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality
Running Time: 115 min.
Cast: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Benedict Wong, David Gyasi, Sonoya Mizuno
Director: Alex Garland
Screenplay: Alex Garland