Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a thought-provoking science fiction film in the vein of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Adapted from Book One of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation tells the story of a biologist that joins an expedition into a topographic anomaly, affectionately referred to as The Shimmer. Slowly expanding from the landing site of a meteorite in North Florida, The Shimmer is an ethereal ecosystem that cannot be explained by any methods known to modern science. Several teams have marched into The Shimmer, never to be seen or heard from again.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a Johns Hopkins biologist with prior experience in the military. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), still a member of the armed forces, has been presumed dead after 12 months missing in action. Unbeknownst to Lena, he was a member of the last expedition into The Shimmer, and mysteriously…the only person to have ever returned.
Shortly after Kane returns home, the military swoops in to whisk he and Lena back to a secret base at the edge of The Shimmer‘s border. Lena is informed by the base’s psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), that her husband is clinging to life after massive organ failure. Determined to find answers and save the man she had presumed dead, Lena joins a team headed into the unknown, captained by Dr Ventress. Accompanying them are Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), a physicist; Cass Shepherd (Tuva Novotny), an anthropologist, and Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic.
I apologize if it seems like I am summing up the first half of the film for you. I promise, this is all relatively basic set-up that takes place within act one. And it’s really a shame we don’t get through this section of the story sooner. What I loved about Arrival was how quickly we were brought into the depths of the film’s mystery, rather than over-explaining or dangling that mystery just out of reach. Instead, we linger in areas that help provide context for elements that I would have loved to see more of on-screen.
Annihilation really comes into it’s own after we cross over into that mysterious territory. The team encounter foliage and foes that have mutated beyond all explanation. It’s as though the area is of another world, unbound by the laws of nature. The deeper Lena and her team venture into The Shimmer, the more treacherous and beautiful the landscape becomes. When the group finds evidence of the previous expeditions’s fate, it becomes clear that they have more to worry about than the unpredictable swamp land.
There is a moment in the film when the team watches footage of Kane performing very crude exploratory surgery on a crew member’s abdomen that I found brilliantly disturbing. Save for some guns and few tents, the previous crew’s camp is a ghost town. But in the bottom of an empty swimming pool the group discover the remains of a soldier in a plume of DNA and detritus. Like a body-horror film produced by National Geographic, the environment in Annihilation is a cancer for which there is no cure.
Any science fiction story worth one’s salt should present ideas that spark discussion. Your Blade Runner‘s, your 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s; They all provide you with a lense through which to view humanity that is enlightening, unsettling, and profound. Annihilation manages to execute this delicate balance act of concepts in its final act with what is sure to be the most discussed 20 minutes of cinema this year. Against all odds, and despite the warnings Kane left behind for all who dare venture, Lena marches forward. Unsure of what awaits her, Lena passes through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, to Jupiter and Beyond! (I’m being intentionally vague here but rest assured that we will be discussing the film in full, spoilers and all, on the next episode of the Nightmare on Film Street Podcast.)
The ideas presented are fascinating and absolutely worth your time but they fall short in their presentation. The music is meant to bring a very clear tonal shift that is distracting at every turn. The story is told though a past-tense interrogation that pulls us in and out of the story, making it difficult to become invested or surprised. While some audiences have complained that Annihilation was “too intellectual” or “too complicated”, there is sure to be a select group in each theatre eager to give the film a standing ovation. I found myself bogged down by some choices made by Garland, but ultimately thankful for the discussion the film provided.
Annihilation is a meditation on The End. The end of life as we know it, on our own mortality and as Sheppard so bluntly states, the death of the person you once were. As our characters come to realize that destruction is both willful and inevitable, we see that there is no end, only change. Sweet Oblivion, Open Your Arms!
Annihilation is written for the screen and directed by Alex Garland. The films stars Natalie Portman, Oscar Issac, and Jennifer Jason Leigh with Benedict Wong, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson and David Gyasi rounding out the cast. Annihilation was released theatrical in North America February 23, 2018 with a Netflix roll-out scheduled for international markets March 2018.
Hear our full thoughts in a spoiler riddled review in and upcoming Podcast episode, and in the official Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook Group.