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Annihilation – Movie Review

Spoiler Warning: This review contains minor spoilers for the movie Annihilation. Please read with caution if you have yet to see the movie. You can find our review of the book Annihilation, on which the movie is based, here.

Annihilation (poster)Annihilation is one of those rare films where the writer/director tossed a whole lot of science fiction and horror tropes into a blender and actually produced something wonderful. I haven’t read the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, so I don’t know whether the film’s writer and director Alex Garland followed VanderMeer’s recipe, but I do know the final cinematic meal was beautiful, moving, suspenseful, and mostly well composed.

The story follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a former soldier and current professor and cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. Lena’s husband, an army sergeant named Kane (Oscar Isaac), has been missing in action—and believed dead—for a year, when he suddenly turns up at home, severely damaged in both mind and body. Government authorities take the couple into custody, and Lena learns that Kane’s last mission had been inside the Shimmer, a quarantined zone around a lighthouse that had been struck by a meteor three years previously. We’re told that several military patrols had entered the Shimmer, but no one but Kane has ever come back out.

Meanwhile, the Shimmer is expanding and beginning to threaten populated areas. To understand what the Shimmer is and how to stop it, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a government psychologist, invites Lena to join an expedition of scientists (all of whom are women, but that’s incidental) into the contaminated area. Once inside the Shimmer, the team encounters a force that is causing a profound mixing of DNA, producing strange, beautiful, and dangerous hybrids of plant and animal species. They discover eerie and disturbing video recordings made by Kane’s patrol, and they themselves become infected with the hybridizing entity, making their mission to stop the Shimmer all the more urgent.

Shimmer

Since I haven’t read the book, I can’t comment on the quality of the adaptation, but I try to judge films independently of their book sources. By its nature, film requires the screenwriter and director to both expand and condense the novelist’s work. A two-hour movie can never include every narrative element contained within a 100,000-word novel. Meanwhile, the filmmaker must bring a vision to the work that the novelist—even the most gifted word-painter—cannot produce. Here, Garland delivers with stunning visuals—the colors within the Shimmer are bright and bold like the Technicolor Oz that welcomes Dorothy when she leaves her Kansas farmhouse.

Lena and KaneLena’s remembrances of happier times with Kane are equally bright, while her darker memories are pale and dim. Even the monsters are handsome in their way. A bear-like creature moves with a brutal grace that is both sad and frightening, and the manifestations of the entity at the root of all the trouble are lovely and profoundly strange. These visuals are all enhanced by a score that is taut and ominous. Annihilation carries echoes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and it is as emotionally affecting and intellectually stimulating as those films.

Like Neil Marshall’s The Descent, Annihilation features a predominantly female cast without being a “woman’s story” (an aspect I loved). While traveling through the infested swampland, the team remains focused on their mission, and their gender has almost no bearing on their decision-making (one team member picks up a weapon left behind by one of the military patrols, remarks on how heavy it is, and discards it in favor of the machine gun she brought with her—and that’s about the only allusion to male-female differences in the film). The film may not be a typical woman’s story, but Lena is still a woman with a powerful story: a grieving widow discovers her husband still lives (barely) and that the entity that is killing him poses a threat to the entire earth. Lena is determined to save her husband and her planet, but she also intuitively recognizes that the force she battles has no malevolent intent—or rather, no conscious intent, at least not before it encounters humanity.

Alligator

The film explores the connections between the body and mind, including consciousness, memory, instinct, emotion, and intellect, at the cellular and metaphysical level in various thought-provoking ways. The Shimmer alters everything, from cells to species to ecosystems, but unmaking is its means of making something new, Lena tells us. Everyone entering the Shimmer undergoes physical and mental changes, and how each copes with these alterations drives the narrative toward the film’s climax. The choices Lena makes at the film’s end, and their consequences, will keep you and your friends up late at night, debating what happened, and what it all means. (My husband and I have had several good-natured arguments about the implications of various events and visuals.)

LenaThere are some narrative missteps, which might be gaffes or might be clues, depending on how you interpret the film. The movie begins with Benedict Wong garbed in a hazmat suit, interviewing Lena about her experiences within the Shimmer, and their debriefing session repeatedly breaks into the film’s action, setting up each new chapter. These scenes annoyed me when I was watching the movie. I felt their only purpose was exposition, with Wong representing the audience and voicing the questions Garland assumed we might have.

Another flaw is that the roles of the five women sent into the Shimmer are also not well defined. The physicist and geologist provide vague explanations for the phenomena they encounter, which aren’t terribly convincing, and the paramedic doesn’t seem to serve any purpose except to fulfill the trope of the team member who goes crazy and endangers the others. Why the team should be led by a psychologist, who ought not to have any relevant expertise, and why it lacked a biologist before Lena joined at the last minute, also seemed like weak storycraft. Finally, an extramarital affair is presented as motivation for the central characters’ actions (in what I felt was a ham-handed manner).

Fence

Yet later, as I thought about these elements in the context of Lena’s grief and guilt, and the abrupt, wish-fulfillment manner in which her husband returns to her, it occurred to me that the entire scenario might be Lena’s psychotic hallucination (“Were you hallucinating?” is one of Benedict Wong’s questions). Supporting this idea is a conversation between Dr. Ventress (the psychologist leading the team) and Lena, in which Ventress draws a link between self-destructive behavior (like adultery) and cellular apoptosis (i.e., cell death), as well as the fact that Lena refers to Ventress as “Dr. Ventress”—an odd form of address when both women are physicians and thus social and academic peers but not strange at all if their relationship is patient to doctor.

Into the Shimmer

In science fiction, “it was all a dream” is usually a cop-out, but the uncertainty of Lena’s experience makes the film more interesting because it provides a rationale for the storytelling hiccups: they’re not plot holes, they’re signs of an unreliable narrator. That said, the novel is the first in the Southern Reach Trilogy, and from what I can tell from the synopsis, the manifestations within the Shimmer are real (the make-up of the expedition team is also more sensible). If Garland adapts the series into sequels for his film, he’ll likely have to pick which direction he’s going to take the story: is the facility where Lena’s debriefing occurs a mental hospital, or a research station? If it is the latter, I’ll have to live with Annihilation’s story flaws. Fortunately, the film’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses, so that’s pretty easy to do.

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2 Comments

  1. Pippa says:

    I cannot wait to see this film. I really enjoyed the book so I’m excited to see what the film is like. Great review!

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