On mutation and evolution, creation in the form of destruction, and the haunting enigma of Alex Garland's Annihilation
Annihilation Paramount Pictures
Director: Alex Garland
Screenplay: Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Oscar Isaac, Tuva Novotny, David Gyasi and Benedict Wong
Rated R / 1 hour, 55 minutes / 2.39:1
(out of four)
How absurd, to guard oneself so tightly, walking into the mouth of oblivion.
We are what we are, as the saying goes, but that's a secret we hold closely to ourselves. We are our genetic code, and we are what we know, and what we have done, and what is written on our bodies, and what we remember, and what we dream, and what we hide. Who we are is ours, and ours alone.
The soldiers and scientists of Annihilation know all too well the uncertainty of entering the Shimmer - the indefinite void their existence immediately becomes. Each an enigma to the next, they are as self-possessed as they are self-protective, as resolutely strong as they are silently broken. Or breaking. Scars are hidden, diagnoses are untold, personal tragedies are buried, addictions are held at bay. Or, for the biologist (and military vet) Lena (Natalie Portman), what has beckoned her to the precipice of existential limbo is a secret connection to this place, the Shimmer - a mysterious zone slowly but ominously expanding across the Southeastern coast, a membranous bubble from which nothing, and no one, has returned.
Well, almost no one. The exception is Kane (Oscar Isaac), Lena's presumed-dead husband, whose surreal re-appearance one night, followed by an almost immediate physical deterioration, is what landed her here at this secret government compound. As Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) explains to her, they've been studying the Shimmer for three years and counting, and aren't any closer to discovering what it is - or how it got here, or what it wants - than they were at the beginning. Various military units have been sent through its iridescent walls, and simply weren't heard from again. But they're going back in. Lena volunteers herself for the mission, joining Ventress, Josie (Tessa Thompson), Anya (Gina Rodriguez) and Sheppard (Tuva Novotny).
Little do they know exactly what the Shimmer is going to ask of them, take from them; little do they know who or what they will be when they return. If they return. Perhaps, on some level, they've all been drawn here - beckoned - specifically because of its haunting promises of destruction, deconstruction, reconstruction. Invited not on a fact-finding mission but a sort of evolutionary walkabout, a subconsciously yearned-for chance for release, submission, escape. To let go of that which they've held onto so fiercely. Self-absorption answered by absorption of self. One character exits the film (a tranquil look about her, at long last) in an astonishing sequence, her surrender one of unnerving calm, concluding in an image of sinister beauty.
At first, what they find are merely biological and ecological anomalies. Impossible ones. One animal species hybridized with another, one plant containing properties of another. Then come combinations that seem even less compatible. Flowers growing out of antlers, thorny bushes shaped conspicuously like human beings. And still it's not yet clear just how intimate this phenomena will become for these five women. Annihilation is in a sense about the fundamentally irrational: An early scene of Portman's character giving a lecture about mitosis in cancer cells provides a guiding thematic groundwork for us (as classroom lectures almost always do), yet writer/director Alex Garland - adapting Jeff VanderMeer's novel of the same name - answers that hard science with the sublimely inexplicable. Mutation within the Shimmer - rapid, constant - plays by its own rules.
They should have known, when they awoke that morning not long after the mission began, none of them with any memory of what they had done, or how long they had been there. Memory was, quietly, the first thing to go, to be absorbed, redirected, dissolved. Time is fuzzy, too, but without memory that basically goes without saying. Compass and GPS readings are obsolete. No wonder no one ever comes back.
And suddenly, who these people are - physically, emotionally, mentally - becomes a more fluid subject. What they are made of - quite literally - is at the mercy of the Shimmer, and whatever rules and processes and impulses may or may not govern it. In a very real and quickening sense, they are no longer who they were when they entered this place. The film is structured with a frame story back in the real world, with Portman's Lena having returned, and being asked - under quarantine - what she discovered there, what she saw. Garland peppers the film with brilliant details - like the tattoo on Lena's arm, which we know from the scenes in the Shimmer used to belong to Anya.
Of course, any concept of what belongs is no longer so simple. Go into the Shimmer and what was yours - your body, your identity, your state of mind - is no longer yours. Everything is unstuck. For these characters - the way they've kept things to themselves, kept things secret, guarded themselves - the joke is on them. There's a key sequence that I think unlocks a fuller understanding of this place, and the depths of matter and consciousness it can reach. The key detail is, Lena was having an affair. She never told Kane, but, she eventually realizes, he knew. Garland cuts back and forth between those moments in the recent past - the couple's tenderness undermined by the unspoken betrayal; a medium close-up of a forlorn, stoic Kane sitting on the edge of the bed just before leaving for a top-secret mission, aware of the infidelity but saying nothing - and a sequence in which Anya grows increasingly, irrationally angry, directing her fury toward Lena in particular, going so far as to tie her up along with the other members of the team. That anger is not hers - it's Kane's, and it's been hovering in this place, where he spent the better part of a year, all along. It's actually a remarkably subtle piece of editing, its implications simple but terrifying. Just like any physical property, emotional states of mind can be transferred, can become part of this de-facto primordial soup.
It might be easy to characterize all of this as a matter of destruction. Lena and Ventress and Josie and Anya and Sheppard are all, in a sense, losing themselves - getting stripped away molecule by molecule - as so many others who made this same trek presumably have. Instead, the emphasis is not in its destructive qualities, but on creation. "It's not destroying," one character declares. "It's making something new." Annihilation's vaginal and uterine imagery - particularly in its spectacularly disturbing final sequence - underscores that idea. The climactic setpiece perfectly embodies the film's strange balance between the ecstasy of discovery and the fear of oblivion.
Despite occasionally trying a bit too hard to lay out certain ideas in dialogue, Garland is largely restrained in his approach toward Annihilation's most abstract ideas, and it's that restraint that contributes so much to the film's visceral unease. Long a specialist in intelligent science fiction, the novelist-turned-screenwriter-turned-director shows a mastery of tone here, deftly balancing the scary and the miraculous, the beautiful and the cataclysmic. With his reflective compositions and the way he rhymes key images throughout the film, he is able to succinctly elucidates ideas that - like the molecular information that gets so rapidly shared and transferred and re-wired inside the Shimmer - are better absorbed than explained. The film itself gradually undergoes its own metamorphosis. Hitting various notes reminiscent of Stalker, The Thing, The Fountain, Under the Skin and Midnight Special, Garland's Annihilation is an evocative piece of work, full of curiosity and dread, that disquietingly stares down mortality itself without any offer of reassurance.