I’ve been looking forward to Annihilation since before I even knew what Annihilation was. After seeing Alex Garland’s directorial debut Ex Machina I was immediately excited to see what this filmmaker would do next. Ex Machina was impressively simple and stylish. It made a dialogue driven story utterly cinematic. Annihilation‘s premise didn’t really excite me, and the marketing was similarly, “meh.” (Aside from the bone chilling musical motif in the trailer, it seemed like a fairly standard sci fi thriller). But “from the director of Ex Machina” was enough to put my butt in the seat on opening night. I was not disappointed. Annihilation lives up to the Ex Machina’s promise of excellence. It is unique and thought-provoking science fiction.
An asteroid crashes into a lighthouse and forms an ever-expanding iridescent force-field of sorts, dubbed “The Shimmer.” Everything and everyone that enters the mysterious area disappears without a trace. After entering The Shimmer a year earlier, Kane (Oscar Isaacs) suddenly reappears, introducing more questions than answers. His wife Lena (Natalie Portman), an ex-military biologist, is called upon to join a team of scientists to enter The Shimmer and retrace Kane’s steps.
The film is strongly committed to Lena’s point of view. That is: lost, confused, and working with incomplete information. It uses flashbacks and flashforwards to gracefully articulate her perception of these events. This is no easy task when memory loss is a key narrative element. It cycles between her past with her husband, the events inside The Shimmer, and a quarantined room where she’s being interrogated about those events. The post-event interrogation is a common trope that I initially rolled my eyes at. However Garland subverts the trope, by making Lena’s retelling unreliable not only to her interrogator and the audience, but to herself as well.
Inside The Shimmer, characters lay on dense exposition in cold, stylized dialogue. This exposition doesn’t provide clarity, as exposition is often meant to. It instead demonstrates how desperately Lena and her teammates are trying to understand. They each use their respective expertise, physics (Tessa Thompson), geology (Tuva Novotny), medicine (Gina Rodriguez), and psychology (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to rapidly rationalize the bizarre event they’ve thrust themselves into. It’s often jargony, and convoluted, but I don’t think the film is about actually understanding what The Shimmer is. It’s about why people so eagerly seek to understand, and why they are willing to destroy themselves in the process.
The subject of their frantic studying is fascinating, terrifying, and visually beautiful. The lush maze of genetically-glitched plant life is washed in soft, iridescent purple and turquoise light. The low contrast cinematography works in tandem with the characters’ frequent memory loss to create a dreamlike, often nightmarish, cinematic experience. Every new discovery begets new mysteries. There are hypotheses, but few concrete answers. The film is structured like a traditional sci fi adventure film, with a slow build to a major third act event. It’s explosive, cathartic, and conclusive, but not concrete or clarifying.
Leaving the theater, my friends and I had a lot to discuss. Annihilation’s ambiguity invites debate and discussions, and it inspires repeat viewings in the best way. Surely it will be divisive. I asked aloud, should the ending have been slightly more clear? Was the absence of explanation a cop out? In that moment, I thought yeah, I would have liked it to be the teensiest bit more satisfying. After a few days of thinking, discussing, reading the reviews, reactions, and dissections, I don’t think that any more. We only know as much as Lena did. The what of The Shimmer was always going to be unknowable, so it’s more important to ponder why she was willing to nearly(?) annihilate herself by journeying inside.
I give Annihilation 10 plant-people out of 10 rainbow skies.