Annihilation is a difficult film to describe, but an easy one to recommend. Film critics are not simply a consumer guide, but also seek to tease out meaning and analyze a film to create even more value from the experience. In this spirit, this review is going to have a short general section, and a longer section with spoilers, marked below. This is the kind of film that morphs over its runtime, starting as an unsettling mystery and reaching a surreal crescendo at the film's climax.
The second film from Alex Garland as director (Ex Machina), the film is a loose adaptation of the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. It takes the same situation and crafts its own story, riffing on the source material rather than be beholden to it. The novel is an exploration of nature and life from the point of view of a particularly clinical biologist. The characters in the novel do not even have names. Rather, they are only referred to by their professions. Garland takes the concepts and atmosphere, making a film that is about how we as human beings are a part of nature, even if we don't think we are.
Lena (Natalie Portman), a biology professor at Johns Hopkins, is startled by the return of her missing husband (Oscar Isaac) from a top secret military mission. She discovers that his mission was into an "environmental disaster area" known as the Shimmer. Once at Area X, the base outside the Shimmer, she decides to follow in his footsteps, joining the lead psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a physicist, Josie (Tessa Thompson), and an ex-EMT Anya (Gina Rodriguez) on their own mission into the Shimmer. Inside, they enter a strange sort of energy that permeates everything in the area, and is causing strange mutations of the local flora and fauna.
But nature always has a dark side, and the team not only ventures to understand the origin of the Shimmer, but also the fate of the previous teams. The two prevailing theories are that they were killed by something within, or killed each other. The truth, however, may be far stranger than either scenario. The film is more psychological thriller than action film, using three different time periods as well as its setting to create an extreme sense of discomfort. There's an unease and anxiety while watching, that like the characters, draws us further and further into the mystery.
Even with all of this in the foreground, Annihilation still remains a hybrid itself. Garland never stops populating the film with thrills, and they are disturbing. The violence is intense and graphic, bullets reacting with meat in a way that most films don't bother with. And it also has a moment of body horror, that despite its brevity, is so intense I felt nauseous.
The music in the film, by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, also mutates as it goes along. Early in the film, guitar and sounds of the traditional American South fill the soundscape (with a little help from Crosby, Stills, and Nash). As we head deeper into the Shimmer, the sounds become more unfamiliar and alien. It is just subtle enough to not draw attention to itself, and works flawlessly.
Annihilation is a film that truly takes some time to unpack. The experience of watching it is unnerving, and the ending is likely to be divisive. But the more I think about this film, the more I like it as well as appreciate it on a craft level.
Spoilers follow! You've been warned.
Annihilation is one of those films that is about many different things all woven together, but the theme of humanity and our place in nature is at the center of it all. It harkens back to the mother of all science-fiction horror films, Alien, in the way that it isolates its human cast from the rest of humanity and puts them up against something that cannot be reasoned with. Here the scale is bigger. Not only are there crocodiles with rows of shark teeth, but the Shimmer itself is refracting everything within. Garland uses refraction as a technique throughout the film to describe the relationship between Lena and her husband. Their most tender moments occur observed through glasses of water or sheets of plastic. She sees him, but does not recognize him since he has returned from the Shimmer. Like something is off.
Once inside, everything in the Shimmer is similarly unsettling. Evolution is something that happens over time to a species, but Annihilation is focusing on the sinister nature of the underlying process of mutation. It creates reflections of things that are familiar, but also seem wrong, like plants growing in the shape of people. Only two of the team members, Lena and Dr. Ventress want to continue their journey after they encounter some of the disturbing aspects of the area. The psychologist is compelled to head to the lighthouse which acts as the epicenter of the Shimmer not only to satisfy her curiosity, but also her biological clock is ticking as she has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. That disease is a recurring motif in the film, as it is a mutation of the normal process of cellular growth, a refraction that takes something essential to life and perverts it and makes it unrecognizable.
All of this is conveyed through science talk, but reinforced by almost placid visuals. There is a serenity to the Shimmer. It's "wrongness" does not take away from its beauty, and often enhances it (those two deer from the trailer are amazing to look at). But the humans within are also subject to its effects, making it impossible to study without also changing yourself. One of my favorite passages in the novel involves the biologist describing how her love of the discipline came from observing an overgrown backyard pool (like Jill, "Garden Party" also reminded me of this). It's beautifully written, especially given the clinical nature of the novel's protagonist. She understands that nature is beautiful and horrific, full of wonderful designs but also terrifying randomness. Embracing the theory of natural selection means reconciling with this in our own lives as well.
What drives us? How do we make choices? Why do we choose to do things that are harmful to us? We always describe animals as being instinctive, yet we often make choices that we cannot fully explain. Annihilation reminds us that we are as subject to the laws of nature as anything else on the planet. This is one of the reason that the story is told across three periods of time. Unlike Arrival, this is not a story about time itself, but a story about the self. Which version of Lena is the "real" version? Our sense of self is always mutating over time.
The "present" of the film is Lena being interrogated by a nameless person in a biohazard suit (Benedict Wong), and her describing her experiences of The Shimmer. But while in the Shimmer, she is remembering things from her own life, with and without her husband. Losing him led her to do things she regrets, but did she lose him because he went to Area X, or did she lose him before that? For Lena, her sense of self-hatred manifests itself in her desire to discover what really happened to her husband. To her shock, she is confronted by this very thing at the center of it all, and only later does she seem to recognize that she was the aggressor.
Annihilation opens in Philly theaters today.