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Annihilation

Posted March 4, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

There were so many reasons to anticipate Annihilation, and foremost among them was probably Alex Garland. While Garland had significant sci-fi bona fides as a screenwriter even before he attempted directing with Ex Machina, the latter was an astounding debut with fantastic visuals and no shortage of cutting-edge sci-fi concepts explored in bold and intelligent ways.

Yet hyped as I was to see this one, Annihilation is still totally unlike anything I expected. And a far better movie for it.

Natalie Portman plays Lena, a former soldier in the U.S. Army, currently a professor of cellular biology at Johns Hopkins. Her husband (Kane, played by Oscar Isaac) went away for a year on some unspecified mission and hasn’t been heard from since. Lena is deep in mourning for Kane, until he suddenly reappears under mysterious circumstances.

Long story short, something came down from outer space and collided with a lighthouse, yet the lighthouse itself is still perfectly intact. But in the time since, the impact site and the surrounding area has been covered in “The Shimmer”, a kind of aura that’s been expanding at a constant rate over the past three years and threatens to overtake the entire world. Luckily, it’s small enough — for now, at least — to keep the public uninformed.

Multiple attempts have been made at exploring the Shimmer, but nothing and nobody that gets sent over there ever comes back. Except — for whatever unknown reason — for Kane. And he’s rapidly dying of multiple organ failure.

Another team is being put together and Lena wants in. Thus Lena ventures into the Shimmer, along with the paramedic Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), the physicist Radek (Tessa Thompson), and the geologist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), under the leadership of psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). If you’ve noticed that our intrepid team is comprised entirely of females and scientists, the characters notice that too. The stated reason is that after losing so many teams of men in the armed forces, it was time to try something different. But of course if it means that we get an entire cast full of talented women playing fleshed-out and intelligent characters, I’m not asking too many questions.

The other side of the Shimmer is truly a sight to behold. Without giving too much away, our characters very quickly see that everything inside is very much like it used to be, except that evolution is working in overdrive. Plants, animals, and bacteria are all mutating in ways that shouldn’t even be physically possible. Thus we have flora and fauna that are even more gorgeous, more mysterious, and more dangerous than their more familiar forebears.

The movie was sold as an action/horror film in the vein of Aliens, and to be sure, that is definitely an aspect here. Heaven knows the monsters are terrifying enough, the horror scenes are scary enough, and the kills are gory enough. What’s even better is that while all of the monsters are kind of recognizable as something that might have started as a common animal, they’re just different enough to be far more unsettling. And while none of the beasts in the Shimmer are immune to bullets… well, a common bear is dangerous and hard enough to kill at the best of times, we’ll put it that way.

But in truth, the movie actually has far more in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey or Garland’s own Sunshine. This is very much a story about a group of intellectuals losing their grip on reality as they go deeper and deeper into unknown and perilous territory. Plus, as we learn more about this UFO and see more of its handiwork, the visuals get incredibly trippy.

The filmmakers were smart enough not to make the mistake of portraying this alien as a villain or a monster. It could be a new species of microorganisms acting independently of each other, it could be a hive mind or a force of nature, and who’s to say that it’s even an alien at all? In any case, it’s perfectly clear that this is just a thing interested in propagating itself without any malice towards us. As one character so aptly puts it, this isn’t a force of destruction, but creation. We just happen to be in the way, that’s all.

This is a movie about life itself, in the most basic sense of clinical biology. DNA and the process of cell division are both prominently discussed as forces of creation and destruction. It’s DNA and all of its various mutations that create endless forms most beautiful, while also creating diseases, cancer, dementia, and even the process of aging (see: telomere degradation). This is the stuff that life is made of, defining all the impulses and chemical reactions that lead us to acts of self-preservation or self-destruction.

Yes, people can be “programmed” to self-destruct in any number of ways, from cigarette use to suicide. But then, cells are programmed to self-destruct as well. Oftentimes, it’s the only way to protect the organism as a whole. Out with the old and in with the new, possibly creating a stronger life form in the process through natural selection and evolution.

Mere text could never describe how utterly gorgeous this movie is, or how much creativity went into every shot inside the Shimmer. Even in the mundane world outside, the camerawork and editing are deeply impressive. What’s more, music is frequently used in such a way that it’s the only audible sound, which adds to the dreamlike tone of the picture.

Garland has proven himself to be a wonderful director, but the actors deserve no small amount of credit for making this work. I know there’s been some degree of controversy in whitewashing the protagonist, even though the character wasn’t revealed to be Asian until the second book in the source text. But for me personally, I’ve seen too many dime-a-dozen pretty faces try to pass themselves off as geniuses with serious academic cred. It was such a breath of fresh air to see a professor of biology played by a phenomenal actress who’s also a legit scientist. Portman brings a kind of experience and intelligence that can’t be faked, and her performance as the grieving wife/hardened veteran is wonderful as well.

Oscar Isaac brings all of his considerable talent to bear as… well, he’s a lot of different things in this picture. Depending on the scene, he’s either playing a loving husband on his way to a classified mission, or he’s something that may not even be entirely human. In any case, he’s always got a secret that’s tearing him up inside (sometimes literally), and it’s compelling to watch.

Jennifer Jason Leigh turns in some fine work as the hardened psychologist, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson are a lot of fun as a couple of crew members who take their own paths to insanity, and Tuva Novotny puts in a memorable performance as well. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Bennedict Wong, who gets the thankless job of interviewing Lena in the framing device, but at least he does a sporting job of it.

So are there any nitpicks? Well, if there are any, it’s due to the very nature of the film. The movie goes into some bizarre, mind-bending territory with some deeply abstract imagery, especially at the climax. It can be difficult to figure out exactly what the hell is going on, and the unreliable narrator certainly doesn’t help in that regard. That said, it’s all presented in such a way that the opacity of the plot is a feature, not a bug. We’re being presented with something that is inherently unknowable, as strange and multifaceted as life itself. If the filmmakers were trying to portray something of a grandeur beyond what mortal minds could comprehend, I’d say they did a fine job.

Annihilation is spectacular. It’s deeply intellectual and mind-blowing in its presentation of larger-than-life concepts, but in a subtle way that successfully draws the audience in. Moreover, the cast is uniformly solid and the visuals are sensational from top to bottom.

This is a thought-provoking and endlessly creative work of science fiction, a worthy follow-up to Ex Machina. Definitely go see it.