Annihilation is the second film directed by novelist-turned screenwriter-turned-filmmaker Alex Garland, and it proves a worthy follow-up to his directorial debut, Ex Machina (2015), a clinical psychodrama that used an artificial intelligence robot to force us to question the fundamental essence of humanity. Like that film, Annihilation uses the science fiction genre to probe some of the deeper recesses of the human condition, although it is not quite so philosophically attuned or thematically rich. More of a metaphysical adventure tale that delves into some moments of abject horror, Annihilation is a potent demonstration of Garland’s range within the genre itself, as well as those who have provided him inspiration (if Ex Machina was haunted by the specter of Stanley Kubrick, Annihilation is possessed by Andrei Tarkovsky).
The plot, which was derived from Jeff VanderMeer’s 2013 novel of the same name (the first in a planned trilogy, although Garland wrote his adaptation before the second two books were published), is strikingly similar to Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). Both films center around a carefully guarded zone that has been mysteriously affected by a meteor strike and has at its center a location that may or may not explain its mysteries. “The Zone” in Stalker is in an unnamed country and is zealously protected by that country’s military with gulag-style barbed wire and machine guns. In Annihilation, the zone is referred to as “the Shimmer” due to the fact that it is surrounded by a semi-translucent, shimmering-color wall that looks not unlike an enormous soap sheen. Unlike the Zone in the Tarkovsky film, the Shimmer has been kept completely secret from the public (its location in the swampy marshlands of northern Florida has aided in its remaining hidden, although a small town had to be evacuated under the auspices of a chemical spill). In both films, the affected zone is expanding: in the Tarkovsky film, the expansion is (not surprisingly) ambiguous, whereas in Garland’s film the expanding Shimmer is a known issue that constitutes the film’s central, epidemic threat, as its slow expansion could result in its eventually swallowing the entire planet.
The government has sent more than a dozen missions into the Shimmer, but no one (and nothing) has ever returned. Thus, the film’s mystery is not just “what” is inside the affected realm, but what happens to anything that ventures into it. As one character puts it, there are two competing theories, both equally awful: Either something in the Shimmer kills the people who enter it or it drives them insane and they kill each other. However, in the film’s opening scene we learn that someone, in fact, has made it out alive: Lena (Natalie Portman), a woman who appears battered and is being interviewed by a team of researchers clad in hazmat suits led by Lomax (Benedict Wong), whose many questions are eerily answered with “I don’t know.” Lena does know some things, though, which we see in flashback as she explains how she came to enter the Shimmer.
A biologist teaching at Johns Hopkins Medical School, Lena is also an Army veteran whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), a special forces soldier, is thought to be dead. However, one night he mysteriously shows up at their house in a seemingly altered state that quickly devolves into blood-spitting seizures that land him in a coma, after which she finds herself in the custody of a government facility at the edge of the Shimmer, where she is informed by a psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that Kane was a member of one of the teams that entered the realm and he is, so far, the only one to come out alive. Sensing that the only way to save Kane is to find out what is happening inside the Shimmer, Lena agrees to join a new all-female expedition team headed by Dr. Ventress that also includes a physicist named Josie Radeck (Tessa Thompson), an anthropologist named Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and a paramedic named Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez).
The film’s second half takes place almost entirely inside the Shimmer, where the team encounters the strange mutations that the meteor strike has caused on the surrounding environment as they press inward toward a lighthouse that they believe holds the answers they seek. There is a constant ethereal sense of difference, as the light inside the Shimmer seems slightly off (it’s too colorful, as if it is constantly being partially broken by a prism). There are physical manifestations, as well, including intensely colored alien vegetation and local animals that have mutated into aggressive monstrosities. The intensity of the environment begins to take its toll on the women, which suggests that the theories about what has killed everyone else who has entered the Shimmer might not be competing, but rather intertwined. One of the women is almost killed by a giant albino alligator that now has characteristics associated with sharks, while another is snatched and mauled by an enormous bear whose visage has mutated into a skull-grimace and who has developed the ability to mimic the screams of its victims, thus supplying the film its most unnerving, uncanny bit of horror. At the same time, though, the real horror lies in the women’s increasing sense of dislocation, paranoia, and dread, as time itself seems to work differently inside the Shimmer and their discovery of a previous team’s ghastly demise on a videocamera inside a deserted military base makes it all too clear just how horrifically things can turn out.
Garland has a real instinct for how to draw out suspense while also delivering a gut-punch climax that doesn’t feel like a gimmick or a letdown; when he finally shows you the horror, it is truly horrific, and he turns the film’s final 15 minutes into both a bizarre light-show and an oddly compelling, gruelingly physical duel. The film has a purposefully slow pace, as Garland slowly reveals layers of narrative and character information that forces us to rethink what we have already seen (a technique he used with even more aplomb in Ex Machina). I am not sure there is any grand thematic statement in Annihilation beyond its canny observations about human behavior under duress, which is a frequent subject of both science fiction and horror. Like Ex Machina, there is something almost clinical about the film, which keeps us at a slight emotional remove (the underlying drama of Lena trying to “save” Kane doesn’t have quite the emotional punch that it should, especially since it drives her willingness to put herself in immense danger). Nevertheless, it is still an absorbing, frequently powerful, and at times insightful film that smartly deploys its sci-fi trappings to keep us engaged while leaving us with just the right touch of ambiguity to chew on afterwards.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Pictures
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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