Annihilation Review: A Refraction of Mortality
I came into Alex Garland's Annihilation (2018), a movie about a mysterious zone that appears after a meteor crashes into the planet, expecting something not unlike Tarkovsky's Stalker. To my surprise, I ended up with Solaris. Except instead of humans as the invading force whose mere presence irrevocably disrupts the delicate ecosystem of an alien planet, in Annihilation it's the aliens disrupting our planet with their "shimmer." Like Solaris, they’re not intentionally malicious beings; it's more of an unconscious destruction, akin to mistakenly stepping on an ant hill.
Annihilation is told through a series of flashbacks primarily following Lena (Natalie Portman), an ex-military cellular biologist who gets dragged into a top secret mission after her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) mysteriously reappears after a year absence. He is quickly collected by the military and quarantined. He is diagnosed with major organ failure and ends up falling in a coma. While at the compound, Lena discovers that Kane had been in an area called "the shimmer” — an anomalous zone that appeared suddenly and seems to be rapidly expanding. Several teams had been sent inside but nobody has ever come out, that is, until Kane.
Lena volunteers her services and ends up in an expedition with four other women – a physicist, a paramedic, a geologist and a psychologist. They make their way slowly towards the center of the anomaly, at the center of which is a lighthouse. On the way they run into a series of obstacles; including memory lapses, hallucinations, impossibly evolved animals and plants, and eventually genetic changes in their own bodies and minds.
Annihilation is largely a sci-fi concept movie, a riff on the idea of a zone that refracts not only light but quite literally the fabric of our planet. Animals and plants of different species end up spliced together, also enveloping the DNA and attributes of any human who comes in contact with them. There's also a lot of parallel symbolism about creation in the manifestation of this zone; a rather phallic looking lighthouse that merges with an egg-shaped space rock to produce something that grows, at the heart of which exists a rather vaginal-shaped tunnel which leads into a womb-like room of both darkness and light. (You feeling it yet, man? Breathe in deeper. We're just getting started.)
But it also touches upon the more human concept of flaws. As they state in the movie itself, the problem with assembling a suicide mission is that your team will most likely be made up of people who have a death wish. Whether you start out with physical or mental scars, the shimmer seems to specifically exacerbate these weaknesses, and eventually every character in Lena's team succumbs to some morphed version of their original flaws. Cass' (Tuva Novotny) fear of further loss and desire to protect causes her to throw herself in harms way unnecessarily. Anya (Gina Rodriguez), already handicapped as an ex-addict, is the first to lose her mind. Josie (Tessa Thompson) is vulnerable to the shimmer's refraction through the physical scars on her arms and wrists. Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has inoperable cancer, refracts the shimmer inside of her body and it immolates her from the inside out. Then there's Lena, an otherwise able-bodied specimen, who makes it to the lighthouse only to be confronted by her two weaknesses: guilt and mortality.
Lena’s fears take the form of a smooth bodied, faceless figure — a walking oil-slick doppelgänger that mirrors every move Lena makes. When she tries to run, it runs with her. When she tries to fight it, it fights her right back. It's easily a metaphor for our own self-hatred, addictions, or even cancerous disease. It's the horror of your own body and mind betraying you, working against you not through malicious intent but through some sort of unintentional error. A dropped number somewhere in the equation, a lapse in judgment, a wrong turn, a malfunctioning cluster of cells; the terror of the most minor mistake having mortal consequences.
The 'annihilation' that Dr. Ventress predicts in her monologue of madness before she dies, and of course the main theme and title of the film, turns out to simply be the pointlessness of our concept of individuality. There is no meaning to our existence, we’re just a series of pre-programed biological functions, no different from the breathing and growing shimmer itself. You can either define your life through a series of roadblocks to distract yourself from the inevitable, or you can accept death and the cold terror of pointless existence. The doppelgänger represents this pointlessness, and as Lena hands it the grenade she herself accepts mortality. It is only due to their proximity to the center of the shimmer, where its ability to duplicate and reproduce is working in overdrive, that the fire she starts just so happens to replicate and replicate until the entire zone destroys itself. Yet another meaningless death of a living creature.
Yet, that doesn't mean you can't appreciate joy and love. Kane managed to get as far as his wife did, but then gives up when faced with both his depression at his wife's betrayal and his mortality. After Cass dies, Josie comments on the horror of the idea that she not only became part of the bear, but that the part of her which persisted was only her last moments of pain and suffering. With Kane and his doppelgänger, it's just the opposite. His dying wish is to tell his wife he loves her, a wish that manages to be imprinted and carried over outside of the shimmer. At the end of the film, his double arrives back to Lena with only the simple desire to give her a hug. It may be pointless in the grand scheme of things, but it's not meaningless. The fact that he is able to recover from his initial massive organ failure is another intriguing thread, opening up the possibility that a human-shimmer hybrid may be a more perfect being.
While I liked the concept of Annihilation, I can't say I loved all of Garland’s direction choices. The flashback structure added nothing to the film, except to prolong some degree of mystery in place of actual character development. Too often the flashbacks felt repetitive, going back to the same bedroom scenes in the same moments, adding an extra minute or two of dialogue that we hadn't gotten the first time. Had the movie shown a little more variety in these character's lives it would have helped to flesh them out a bit more.
I also found the constant haze filters outside of the shimmer to be visually distracting. But inside of the shimmer I loved how much everything... shimmered. But it was a little too CGI-fantasy-heavy to feel menacing the way the setting of, say, Stalker did. (Not that I’d expect a full Stalker reproduction considering how the entire cast died from shooting in those toxic locations but... ) There's plenty of beauty and mystery in nature, a point Annihilation makes continually but then still manages to drop the ball by relying too heavily on special effects. That said, I loved the gator and I loved the horrifying screaming bear which is still haunting me. Though the most truly terrifying stuff was inside of the lighthouse. That fungal-stalagmite-vine hole in the floor was perfectly unnerving, even if the inside of it it felt a little too Alien. Say nothing of the doppelgängers, who managed to curl my toes despite looking like Lawnmower Man.
At the end of the day, Annihilation brings a lot of ideas to the table but doesn't seem to follow through with them in any conclusive ways. What made a movie like Solaris stand out was it's interesting angle on its concept, which lead to a much deeper commentary on human selfishness and the nature of mortality. When the invading force is literally alien, as is the case in Annihilation, it's too open to be defined in any set way; it makes no hard decisions and thus lends itself to whichever projection the audience wants to throw on the invading force's intentions. Which isn't bad necessarily, but it's just a bit too broad to anchor with any larger themes. Perhaps had the film ended with Kane's doppelgänger and Portman both merging together into one being after the final hug, body horror style, it would have added that last touch of symbolism I really wanted. As it was, Annihilation was engaging and creepy, yet a little more on the horror-concept side than truly enlightening sci-fi to me.