Written by: Alex Garland (screenplay), Jeff VanderMeer (novel)
Directed by: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tessa Thompson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You really have no idea what it was."
Try as we might—and this is in no way to slight the awesome power of science—we’ll likely never understand the nature of creation. Sure, we can chart the evolution of life on earth and analyze its infinitesimal cells, but we don’t really know why the world plays host to this delicate dance of existence and death. Birth eventually yields to decay, leaving us wondering if this the universe’s design or one of its flaws. Annihilation is expressly concerned with this uncertainty but is equally hesitant about providing answers for it—primarily because it seems that writer/director Alex Garland realizes the futility of such an endeavor. Life, it seems, might be nothing but a series of cosmic chance and mischance, a random collision of particles and lifeforms that find a way to endure, no matter how inexplicable the process might be. In many ways, Annihilation is a potent reminder that we might only be here because something else hasn’t arrived to replace us yet, a possibility that seems both horrifying and sublime all at once in this haunting exploration of intimate anxieties caught in the trade winds of these cosmic whims.
Something has plummeted to the Earth and touched down near a lighthouse in the southern United States. What, exactly, it is remains a mystery, as it only leaves a mysterious glow in the region it’s slowly enveloping. Those tasked with studying an analyzing it have dubbed it “The Shimmer,” an incongruously alluring but dangerous zone from which no one has returned. Everything changes, however, when Kane (Oscar Isaac), a soldier thought to be lost or dead within The Shimmer, enigmatically reappears after a year’s absence. His wife Lena (Natalie Portman) is stunned to find him wandering into their bedroom, where she’s spent her days consumed by grief; however, her relief soon gives way to fear when he’s unable to account for his whereabouts. Not only has his mind been scrambled and his memories of the experience erased, but his body also begins to degenerate as blood spews forth from his mouth, leaving Lena helpless.
Only the intervention of the Southern Reach—the task force commissioned to study The Shimmer—saves his life, which still hangs in the balance within Area X, their secluded research facility. Desperate for a solution, Lena looks to The Shimmer in hopes that it holds a key to curing her husband. Conveniently, her status as a biologist and a former marine makes her uniquely qualified to join the next expedition into this unknown nether-region. Alongside four other women, she treks within to find a bizarre landscape that’s as beautiful as it is haunting. Even as her own mind becomes warped by her experience inside—at a certain point, weeks pass even though it only feels like a day—she can’t resist the pull of the lighthouse, which may or may not hold the answers to the question she seeks.
The path there is mostly lined with horrors, though, as Garland spends much of Annihilation splicing together the work of various masters—most notably Carpenter, Cronenberg, and Cameron—into a new but familiar beast. You can’t help but be reminded of the likes of The Thing, Aliens, and The Abyss as the story’s particular unfolds, while Garland also reserves some space for potent visceral terrors. Suspense and atmosphere rule the day from the outset, as the entire film is technically a flashback narrated by Lena after her ordeal, when she delivers her account of this doomed journey to a group of obviously spooked scientists, who double as an audience surrogate.
Like them, we hang on Lena’s every word and intently watch her every interaction leading up to her journey to The Shimmer. Garland and DP Rob Hardy meticulously paint an intimate canvas as Lena moves through increasingly claustrophobic spaces: her sullenly vacant home, the sterile Area X facility, the confining interrogation room where she relays her story. Annihilation is the sort of film that mostly unfolds with the tenor of a whisper: like The Shimmer itself, it’s mesmerizing in the way it lulls the audience in and leads them towards a great unknown.
But it’s also positively haunting, particularly when the group enters The Shimmer, at which point the film becomes an absorbing descent into some kind of hell. It’s not obviously so, at least not at first: the lush landscapes and the unreal biological structures within—crystalline trees, seemingly alien fawn, vibrant flora—are downright alluring. As Lena herself notes, describing The Shimmer is difficult: it’s a nebulous zone falling somewhere between a nightmare and a day dream, as its surreal glow looms in the distance, shading the proceedings with a phantasmagoric rainbow tint. You sense that it’s somehow alive with insidious intent, slowly expanding and warping everything it encounters, paradoxically creating new life and annihilating what came before.
Garland dwells within this paradox, allowing the audience to be completely enraptured by the beauty of The Shimmer while also mining its horrific potential. For long stretches, he’s less preoccupied with the science fiction implications and more keen on generating unnerving, visceral terror via The Shimmer’s transmuted creatures. Both an overgrown alligator—whose maw is inexplicably filled with rows of teeth resembling that of a shark’s—and a twisted, mutated bear attack Lena’s group, with the former encounter providing one of the most jolting scares in recent memory. Meanwhile, the episode with the bear—which unfolds over the course of two increasingly harrowing encounters—delivers more visceral shocks that elevate to an agonizing bout of body and existential horror once you realize the awful truth about its inhuman wailing. Annihilation is perhaps about five (very) giant leaps away from being some kind of Day of the Animals redux, as you could easily see someone indulging this premise for all its schlocky potential.
Garland resists it, however: his hand is too steady and restrained to lose his grip in such a fashion because he’s careful to make these violent outbursts truly resonate and impact the audience. They’re a genuine shock because Garland and the performers invest too much into these women to reduce them to mere creature feature fodder. Despite not having a tremendous amount of depth on the page, the supporting cast imbues these characters with a genuine presence; most importantly, you sincerely like this group, meaning it’s actually harrowing when they inevitably begin to break down and turn on each other. In fact, three of the women are introduced in a scene where they invite Lena to eat with them, at which point you realize they’re all positively scared shitless about going into The Shimmer.
They’re resolved about the task nonetheless, and it’s within The Shimmer that you see these actresses bring a potent—and vital—humanity to Annihilation. Tuva Novotny is Lomax, a geologist who initially invites Lena into the fold, providing a warm, almost maternal presence as she fiercely protects her group, and it hardly seems like a coincidence that the script reserves arguably the cruelest fate for her. On the other end of the spectrum is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr. Ventress, the psychologist and leader who remains somewhat at a remove from her comrades: there’s something cold and detached about her that should raise suspicion, but Lee often finds an affecting sadness in her otherwise practical, robotic voice, almost as if her single-minded quest to reach the lighthouse is somehow personal.
Anya Thornesen (Gina Rodriguez) is similarly practical but only in the sense that she’s the first to realize they should get the hell out of dodge, and that desperation heightens the growing urgency of the situation. Finally, Tessa Thompson shines as the meek but hyper-competent Josie, a young physicist whose infectious curiosity about The Shimmer provides a sort of counterbalance to that urgency, thus reinforcing the paradoxical nature of this strange place. Unlike many films of this nature—where it seems very obvious that the best course of action is to flee—you can understand why this group wants to burrow in further. Surely, it holds some kind of answers, and its grotesqueries are offset by its sheer beauty, making it something of a microcosm of existence itself.
Lena is most obviously at the center of this contradiction. Because it’s literally her story, she’s afforded more interiority, and the film’s flashback structure allows for an impressionist portrait of a woman carrying the burden of various memories and regrets. Hers is a quiet desperation, one driven not only by her desire to help her ailing husband but also by a frantic need to simply know the universe’s biggest secrets. She can expertly explain to her students how cells divide and replicate, yet she’s unable to figure out the big, existential quandary: what’s the point of it all? One especially pointed flashback captures a moment when she and Kane share a tender moment in bed, where she wonders aloud about the nature of death and decay. She considers it to be a flaw in the universe’s design, while he believes in a God incapable of making flaws.
Therein lies the big, unknowable question, and it’s the one Garland eventually circles around to during a stunning climax that unmoors Annihilation from its traditional narrative structure. Most of the final twenty minutes or so are wordless, most likely because there are no words that can convey what Lena discovers within the lighthouse. Garland continues to indulge the Lovecraftian horror of the premise, escalating it here to mind-bending levels that involve doppelgangers that may or may not be sinister. What you won’t find are many answers in this purely cinematic swirl of sight and sound, as Garland leans into abstract visuals and an increasingly bombastic, scattershot sound design that seeks to absorb through sheer force of will.
It’s a sublime sequence, one that reminds you how thrilling it can be to just get lost in the power of cinema—even if it is underpinned by the same frightening, ambiguous uncertainty that’s guided much of Annihilation. To the end, Garland dwells on that uncertainty, ending on a haunting final shot that reminds us that life goes on—even if we’re not sure why or how, or even what it truly means to be alive. Are we nothing more than a collection of DNA intertwined with memory, or are we vessels capable of being hijacked by some unknown cosmic force? Annihilation refuses to even feign at a straightforward answer because to do so would undermine its most unnerving horrors surrounding our insatiable desire to know and the folly that entails. All of us will venture to our metaphorical lighthouses, urged on by anxiety and existential dread; all of us will emerge changed by both pain and growth, albeit without any verifiable answers, whether we seek solace in faith or science. There is only an unknowable void capable of spewing forth a spectrum that boasts twin poles of sublimity and horror, not unlike The Shimmer itself.
In the weeks leading up to Annihilation, much of the conversation has centered on Paramount’s unfortunate decision to dump it into theaters (and, in international markets, to Netflix) with little fanfare. Reportedly spooked by negative test screenings, the studio panicked and assumed most audiences would be bewildered by it. What they don’t seem to understand is that Annihilation isn’t an impenetrable puzzle box so much as it’s an enigmatic obelisk that’s impossible to truly solve with a single correct answer.
While the film doesn’t explicitly state as much, there’s a sense that The Shimmer reflects what you bring into it: likewise, what you take out of Annihilation might hinge on what you bring to it. Personally, I couldn’t be more thrilled with a film that refracts so many classic genre influences through a vibrant prism, in the process creating something that’s refreshing, heady, and absolutely terrifying on an existential level that few films reach.
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