Directed by Alex Garland
Annihilation is one part Arrival, one part melodrama and one part 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a sci-fi movie which means we get a solid thirty minutes of exposition followed by the exploration of that sci-fi concept followed by a third act in which the film really gets to be what it wants to be, which is trippy and strange, frightening and beautiful and a whole lot of CGI, but the good kind of CGI.
The best sci-fi movies have something to say. Like horror movies or old westerns or any other sensationalized genre, they comment on our own world. Alex Garland’s previous film, Ex Machina certainly did so, asking what it meant to be human. Annihilation is a solid sci-fi/horror movie but more so because of the horror and spectacle of the film.
There may be a message, in fact I’m quite sure there is, but I’m still unfolding the movie in my head. Annihilation is complex, but it might just feel that way in retrospect because of a deliberately opaque ending. Like many other sci-fi movies there is a central mystery we hope to have answered by the end. Oftentimes this mystery takes precedence over the character story which only serves to get us from point A to point B. There is an obligation, in other words, for the story to answer our questions about what the hell is going on, and this is usually told in parallel with the protagonist’s search for the same answers. Annihilation gives us an answer, or it at least seems to. When the movie ends, though, that answer is a little less clear than we once thought.
Am I being opaque? Is that the right word? Maybe.
Our hero is Lena (Natalie Portman), a former member of the army and current biologist. Her husband goes on a classified mission and doesn’t return… until sometime later when he inexplicably shows up at her home. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) is hardly himself and soon suffers multiple organ failure. On the way to the hospital their ambulance is intercepted by a strong military force, and Lena is brought to a base just outside the “shimmer,” a pulsating force field surrounding a lighthouse.
Lena is told that her husband was part of an expedition into the shimmer and is the only one to have made it out alive. After learning more about the shimmer, Lena volunteers for the next mission alongside four other women. Most of act 1 is a series of conversations that serve to push the group inside the shimmer. What you need to know is that it’s basically a suicide mission, and every character has some kind of backstory which explains why they are willing to go in. One lost a daughter, one is suicidal to begin with, one is dying from cancer, another is something else I can’t remember, and Lena lost her husband and wants answers.
Once inside, the group wakes up at a campsite and realizes they can’t remember anything between entering the shimmer and waking up a few days later. They wander through a beautiful forrest where strange, colorful plants grow and which they soon discover is occupied by a series of strange mutants. One is an alligator with shark-like teeth. Another is a lion? I think it was a lion, one that can leap a dozen or two dozen feet in the air. The third one, easily the most horrifying, is some kind of blind boar which makes the noise of the people it kills. This means that when the group encounters the boar, it exhales the scream of the woman it killed, right as it killed her. It’s pretty chilling.
I found the story and the character motivations a little clunky. We’re told who they are and what drive them, there might be a moment or two to set up or reinforce their internal drive, and then something big happens. There are three big, violent moments concerning those three mutant animals I mentioned as well as a quiet, morbid piece of art involving a disemboweled soldier from the previous mission. In between there are long scenes of awkward, self-serious conversations.
The movie works because of how committed it is to the insanity, absurdity, violence and the mystery. What I didn’t like was that sometimes the story felt aimless, though maybe that was just a reflection of the characters’ own confusion. They begin to lose their grip on reality, something established by a digital camera with footage from the last expedition, including Kane.
Perhaps that listlessness of the plot is why the story keeps jumping around in time, both backwards and forwards like an episode of Lost. We see flashbacks of Lena’s marriage with Kane, meant to show how it wasn’t perfect, and we see flashforwards in which Lena, as the only survivor of this expedition, is interviewed by men in hazmat suits. In one of these flashforwards we’re told flat out that the leader of the expedition had cancer and knew she wasn’t going to make it out alive. This moment, this line of dialogue is meant to explain her motivations when before they were a mystery. And suddenly we’re meant to understand her stubbornness. Which, it just felt a little strange. In another moment, a flashback, a man with which Lena had an affair says out loud that they’re having an affair. No, we get it.
The dialogue felt heavy, like it had to do the heavy lifting. The way I see it is there is a lot that needs to be explained in order to pay off the premise, and there is not really much of a plot so the story is told with these jumps in time. Once Lena is in the shimmer, what’s her goal? She wants to find out what happened to her husband, and though she gets a little information, her goal remains the same until the end. All that happens is that the group gets picked off like in a horror movie until Lena visits the lighthouse and learns what’s up.
I enjoyed this movie, to reiterate, but I didn’t care so much about what drove Lena or about her happy marriage. All the performances were strong, but the characters offered very little. They were just there to be picked off.
The third act is the best part of the movie. It’s weird, beautiful and scary in a way the entire movie should’ve been. The mutants were pretty great, but the horror milked from those scenes was more of the traditional jump-scare variety. The horror of the end of the film is less frightening but much more haunting. We really have no idea what’s going on, and the energy which nearly sucks Lena in is appealing in some way.
At this point we have learned that the shimmer takes the DNA of everyone inside and combines it in some way. Lena has absorbed genetic material from the rest of her group as well as the environment has absorbed her. Everything has melted together in some way, and to what degree I’m still not sure. The end of the movie is an experience which makes the awkward dialogue worth it. It’s like eating your vegetables to get to the dessert.
The movie ends with Lena destroying the shimmer through means which feel a little convenient. She returns to the military base and to Kane, who she knows isn’t really Kane, though he at least has some of Kane’s DNA in him. I mean, he looks like Kane. Lena embraces him as the movie ends, and their eyes each glow in such a way to suggest they’re connected.
I still don’t fully understand the end of the movie or how it’s meant to make us feel. Maybe I’m clueless or maybe the movie really was deliberately vague. All I know is that it feels hopeful, and they appear to be connected. After all they are the only two people to return from the shimmer, and that experience, as well as perhaps some shared DNA, connects them.
Up Next: The Paths of Glory (1957), The Boxer (1997), The Mirror (1975)