Science fiction films can be challenging, and they can be thrilling to watch. Annihilation is one film that tries to do both at the same time.
Despite the title, Annihilation isn’t a film that depicts an end brought about by overt destructive means. It may bring up connotations of recent bombastic science fiction apocalypse tales such as Battle: LA, or The 5th Wave, or even War of the Worlds. Instead, Annihilation depicts a menace of uncertain means and motivation. In fact, the characters of the film aren’t even sure it’s a problem. People go missing, electronics don’t work as they are supposed to, and information is completely lacking. Is it a mirage meant to dazzle the imagination (a form of exterrestrial communication), a random natural mishap, or something more sinister? It actually doesn’t matter. What Annihilation depicts, regardless of the purpose, is the most frightening threat to humanity possible: the threat of the unknown.
Annihilation is the latest heady science fiction film, but it bridges on horror territory. The story is based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer and begins a few years after a meteor brings a strange phenomenon to Earth. This entity begins affecting the space around it, creating a zone known as “the shimmer” that expands over time. Lena is a biologist whose husband (Kane), a soldier, randomly appears in her home after his disappearance nearly a year earlier. He falls ill and they are intercepted by the government on the way to the hospital. Lena and her husband are brought to a research facility on the edge of the shimmer, where the government is desperate for answers. Kane was part of a team that had ventured into the shimmer, but never returned. Lena decides to venture into the shimmer herself as part of a team of women to find its source, and hopefully its purpose. For Lena, the motivation is twofold: find a cure for her ailing husband, and also satisfy her curiosity as a biologist.
No one has yet returned from the shimmer. Drones sent in do not return, and scans reveal no data. The government has been trying to get answers for years, with no results to show for the losses they’ve sustained in the process. Kane’s appearance is both the start of Lena’s involvement in the plot as well as an invitation for the script to throw a bunch of questions at the audience. As we explore deeper into the shimmer along with Lena, the conundrum only seems to grow. At this point, the film turns into a mystery. Clues show up at regular intervals, and slowly we begin to understand what is happening. By the end, there are profound answers, but not everything is completely solved. Interpretation and investigation are necessary to get the most out of this film.
Popular novelist-turned-acclaimed screenwriter, and now-director Alex Garland is at the helm. Garland frames his film as a flashback. The opening scene is Lena being interrogated, and so it seems that she has survived her journey into the Shimmer. This perhaps gives the plot a predetermined ending, but this doesn’t become a hindrance. Instead, Garland uses his storytelling acumen to turn it into a win. The film twists and turns its way from point A to point B, flipping our perspective of that first scene as we get new data to interpret the situation. Along the way, Garland gives us scenes of both breathtaking beauty and heart-stopping terror. The film is as much an eye-opening experience to watch as it is an exercise in mind-shifting intrigue. Rarely do films accomplish both at the same time.
Lena is portrayed by the always-proficient Natalie Portman. Portman brings both a strength and weakness to the character that is required for her story to be believable. Lena is ex-military, and Portman proves to us that the character has the experience necessary to explore into hostile territory without batting an eye. Portman also shows us that the character is only human. She makes mistakes and those mistakes are something that weighs heavily on her. The contrast between human strengths and weakness is a major theme in the film - sometimes going so far as to suggest that our weaknesses are our strengths and vice versa. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a psychologist who leads Lena’s expedition, and her motivation for venturing into the shimmer is as much about helplessness as it is being able to finally gain control over something in her life that has caused her much distress. Leigh’s performance is direct and to-the-point, necessary I think for a person in her character’s position. Finally, Oscar Isaac portrays a sparse-spoken Kane, and although he isn’t heavily featured, his few scenes are very important overall.
Those who are familiar with Tarkovsky, Cronenberg, or even Apocalypse Now will find something familiar in Annihilation. The plot recycles some ideas that you’ve seen before, and it wears it’s inspiration on its sleeve. To me personally, this wasn’t a problem because Garland and the rest of the filmmaking team take so many risks with this film. The innovations in storytelling seem to balance out any distraction that might come from having such a familiar foundation. After all, Annihilation is about individual interpretation. How you respond on a personal level to the way that the story unfolds will ultimately define what you get out of the film. This is one of those rare movies where everyone in the theater is watching the same movie, but when they walk away each person might have something different to say.
However, while Annihilation is a solid film, and does a lot of things that great films should do, I hesitate to call label it as such. Part of the challenge in making a film that is open to interpretation is walking the fine line between giving too much or too little information away. For me, I thought that the film was a little too well-rounded to achieve the provocative label that it set out for. Although Garland handles the beginning of the film well, it still felt cliche. And the end may be full of possibilities, but I don’t think the film closes in a place that is unexpected. Can a film truly be innovative if it doesn’t leave us in a different place than where we started? Visually, the film is also a bit of a let-down. While the special effects are generally very good, the cinematography gets murky at times and the way the film is lit can be distracting. However, I didn’t find the B-movie stylings to be much of an encumbrance to the excellent storytelling.
Alex Garland has given us many exciting and thought-provoking films and novels over his career. Annihilation is no exception. As director, he has shown that the additional responsibilities have not hindered his storytelling talents, and Annihilation is proof that he can create a consistent vision. The film features some fine performances, and gives us one or two of the most frightening scenes in recent cinematic history. Like the subject that it depicts, it is not something that can be easily understood, nor is it meant to be. Instead, Annihilation is a challenge. A challenge that we should all welcome because not only is the film thrilling to watch, but the reward is something personally satisfying.