It has been quite some time since I last wrote a review. But sometimes a film hits the right notes and sits with you and the only way to shake it is by getting your thoughts out in writing. ’Annihilation’ was one of the first films in awhile to have that effect on me. I should preface this by saying that I’ve been waiting 3 years for its release ever since I read Jeff VanderMeer’s brilliant ‘Southern Reach’ trilogy. That it was going to be directed by Alex Garland only heightened that excitement. It is fitting that the last film I reviewed on this site was ‘Ex Machina’ – another Garland film that I loved and ended up being my favorite of that year. It might only be February but I can honestly say I could see ‘Annihilation’ taking that spot this year.
Alex Garland has stated that he read the first book of the ‘Southern Reach’ trilogy – from which the film gets its title – only once and then wrote the screenplay as if remembering a dream. To him it was a “dream like” book – one that would be hard to adapt outright. So he wrote the screenplay as if recalling a dream – attempting to capture the tone but also offering up his own interpretation of the story. I think that you could say that this is also how I approached this review. I’ve only seen the film once and in writing this it really was like trying to remember a dream. The film is so layered and so visceral of an experience that to discuss it without multiple viewings doesn’t quite do it justice, because like a dream you only remember what stood out, the parts that affected you the most and things might get overlooked. Those things might not be the same for everyone so my interpretation of it may not mirror what others have thought – it might also just seem like pseudo intellectual babel! But I’ll do my best.
It would be damn near impossible to describe the plot of the film in any great detail without spoiling it but I will do my best to set it up. The film stars Natalie Portman as Lena – an ex army soldier turned biology professor. When we first meet her she is still grieving her missing husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who was also in the military. He was sent on a mission a year prior and there has been no word of his status since. That is until one evening when he turns up to their house, his memory hazy, his explanation of his disappearance unclear. Before long he begins to have seizures and Lena rushes him to the hospital only to be intercepted by the Southern Reach – a secret government agency – and taken to a secure location.
There they explain to Lena that years prior something seemingly extraterrestrial crashed into the coastline. In subsequent days and weeks after the crash a shimmering pearl and translucent bubble began to grow and expand covering miles of swampland. It doesn’t seem to ever stop expanding and its presence is being monitored and kept secret. Their fear is that if it continues to grow at its current pace, it’ll eventually end up engulfing populated areas. They have sent in multiple exploratory teams over the years, consisting of trained military forces – to discover what lies within but none have returned. The prevailing theory/rumor? Something either killed them or they went crazy and killed each other. Lena learns that her husband – now on life support and quickly fading – was a part of one of those missions and is the first member to ever return. Determined to find out what happened – and possibly save him – Lena volunteers to join four other women on the next expedition into what the organization calls the “Shimmer”.
From there what Garland creates is a cerebral – at times haunting – sci-fi masterpiece. To me ‘Annihilation’ works brilliantly as two things. First as a genre film in the vein of ‘The Thing’ and ‘Alien’. It is at times bone chillingly eerie with a persistent sense of unease and paranoia from start to finish – and it contains one scene with a bear that is one of the more frightening scenes I’ve seen in awhile. This side of it raises a lot of questions about genetics, bioengineering and the effects of outside forces on an ecosystem. You could take it as a climate change allegory where human interference has altered the environment and now it has turned on them.
Second – and more importantly – it is a metaphysical examination of depression, self destruction – and in my eyes – renewal that has ties to Tarkovsky and Kubrick. It is a film about characters dealing with issues that hang over them like a dark cloud. Addiction, the loss of a child, self harm, cancer. Each and every one of them goes on this mission not just because they want to know what lies within the Shimmer – but also because the unknown is better than what they currently know. In an almost subconscious way – and for some very conscious – the threat of death doesn’t scare them and it perhaps would be a release. Once inside they are faced with an ever increasing state of anxiety. They can’t trust their eyes or their thoughts. Eventually even their bodies turn on them. Are they even any longer in control? Will they ever escape or be able to go back to being who or what they were before entering? Or will they be consumed by the Shimmer – the dark cloud that hangs over them?
For Lena specifically, the deeper she goes the more the Shimmer takes effect, the weight of guilt and grief consuming her, until she nears a breaking point. By the film’s end she must effectively confront herself head one – and for many people with depression that “self” is their worst enemy as it is here. She can’t get away from it, at one point it is literally suffocating and crushing the more she fights. It isn’t until she stops fighting that she is able to overcome. But still the question lingers – even once we get through the darkest moments in our life – when we shed that grief, guilt, loss or sadness – are we still the same? Has the effects of those things, of the Shimmer, changed us forever for better or for worse? That I think it open to interpretation. For me I found the ending hopeful. There was a sense of renewal, or rebirth, in the same way as ‘2001’ and the Starchild or the Titan-esque Ryan Stone crawling out of the “primordial soup” in the end of ‘Gravity’.
Production wise I’d say the film is a marvel. The CGI is used to great effect creating a dreamy, gorgeous and colorful landscape. Garland has mentioned that although the film is set in Florida they shot the film in the UK and made the sets look like swampland. It is a minor production detail that I found interesting and in a way one that helps in making the Shimmer feel more unnatural. The score is equal parts hypnotic and kinetic. The finale in particular had my skin crawling as the images on screen danced along with the pounding score.
The two biggest complaints I have heard about the film are the pacing and the narrative structure. Neither bothered me. The pace was at times slow – but it felt deliberate as if building towards something great – which very much paid off. There are quiet moments but all serving a purpose to either further the progression of the story and Lena’s arc – or to build a sense of unease. As far as the structure of the film – which consists of flashbacks and jumps between the past and present – it didn’t hinder the film in any way. And to be quite honest, given the feeling of the unknown, I enjoyed the slow revelation of Lena’s past along with the questions about Lena’s state of mind in the present that the structure produced. One must remember she is an unreliable narrator at that point – something that I think could be rewarded with multiple viewings
I do highly recommend that everyone see this on the big screen- especially because love it or hate it, we need to support these sorts of films. The studio already gave up on ‘Annihilation’ before it was even released. It won’t hit theaters overseas and hasn’t even opened in a lot of theaters in the US which is a shame.
Ultimately for me ‘Annihilation ‘ was a film that was as earthly – almost cosmic – as it was intimate. It is a horror story about how we change the world around us and how it changes us – as well as a fascinating examination of depression, anxiety and overcoming self destruction. It is a divisive film for sure. It won’t click with everyone and many will outright hate it. Even those that love it might not walk away with the same impression as I did. But that to me is the sign of a truly great film – one that is subversive, layered and truly unafraid to take risks.