Annihilation (2018)

| February 23, 2018

So, it’s very late.  I go to see Alex Garland’s Annihilation at the 10pm show.  I know nothing about it.  The theater, which has a seating capacity of about 100, is empty – the movie is attended 99 empty seats and me.  As the trailers wrap up, I wait for late stragglers to come through the door (there’s almost always one) but, no.  Normally, I would champion the solitary theater experience, but in a movie as unsettling as this, some measure of anonymous company might have been more comforting.  Annihilation is one of the creepiest, most bizarre experiences that I’ve had in a very long time.  Seated alone with it in a public place makes it even more unsettling.

I say these things only to illustrate that I think the movie did its job.  Annihilation is the kind of slow-burn end-of-the-world movie that gets under your skin, works on you psychologically and leaves you feeling somewhat baffled and drained.  That it comes from Alex Garland, the director of the equally unsettling robot-thriller Ex Machina answers a lot of questions about its origin.  This is his second directorial effort and after learning that he penned the screenplays for 28 Days Later and Dredd, I kind of see a pattern here.

The nerve-racking texture of the movie has affected the way that movie is being distributed.  After and unspectacular test screening, Paramount Pictures got cold feet, pulling much of its advertising, withholding the movie from the press until very late, and then selling it to Netflix for the international market.  Personally, I don’t think they have anything to worry about.  They have a potential hit among more thoughtful science fiction fans.  Like Blade Runner, this is a movie they will be talking about for years.

The movie never panders because Garland is not out to curry your favor.  His films have a disturbing agenda.  There is something under the world that is out to consume and annihilate humanity and when the end comes, it won’t be a gentle glide into eternity.  It starts with the oohing and ahhing and then the screaming and the running.  That’s pretty much the texture of Annihilation which is a smart sci-fi thriller that considers carefully the terror that it is unfolding.  What would likely happen if something came into our world and unconsciously began to rearrange things to suit its own needs?  If you’re an optimist, God help you.

The story is told mostly in flashback with a biologist named Lena (Natalie Portman) secured in a germ-free cell while being questioned by a man in a haz-mat suit.  He is asking her about an expedition from which she was apparently the sole survivor and from which she is apparently radioactive.  The story reels backwards to tell her adventure that begins with a fireball in space that falls to earth near a lighthouse.  A meteor perhaps?  Spacecraft maybe?

From Here Possible Spoilers

Flashback to Lena’s domestic home life, in which her Army husband Kane (Oscar Isaacs) was apparently KIA one year ago.  She’s trying to move on, until Kane shows up one night in her bedroom.  Is he real?  He certainly seems so, but something about him is dead-eyed and . . . soulless.  Flashes to their early life together shows him to be charming, which only deepens the mystery of why he seems so stiff.

A bizarre set of circumstances (which I won’t give away) leads her into the jungle known as “Area X” in which she is asked to help a team of researchers understand a mysterious environmental disaster.  The meteor has gestated into a strange gelatinous anomaly nicknamed “The Shimmer” that has burst forth from the lighthouse and is getting bigger and bigger expanding outward.  The laconic leader of the investigation team Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) thinks that it will consume the jungle in a matter of weeks, and the world in a matter of years.

So what are they dealing with?  Well, a previous expedition that was sent to investigate and did not return, and was headed by – surprise-surprise – Lena’s husband Kane.  The Army was no help, so Lena and Ventress are charged with heading into The Shimmer to discover what lies inside.  The Shimmer, looms along the treeline and, from the outside, looks like a wall of rainbow-colored soap bubbles rising into the air.  It’s a beautiful sight, but the horn-like sounds that it makes are not at all comforting.

Accompanying Lena and Ventress are an all-female team of anthropologists, linguists and physicists, all of whom seem to be suffering from various personal issues: Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass Tuva Novotny) and Josie (Tessa Thompson).  All of these women are given a level of personal development that makes their role in this mission more than just fodder for the mill.  There’s a reason they’re here, all of which is revealed slowly over the course of the story.

To say that things inside The Shimmer seem out of the ordinary would be a gross understatement.  Almost immediately Lena hits upon the information that the DNA in the immediate surroundings are altering themselves.  Plants seem to be sprouting different species of leaves on the same stalk, and later an alligator shows signs of having been mutated with a shark.  As the team moves further and further toward the lighthouse, they find their surroundings and their circumstances getting weirder and weirder.  What’s worse is that by the time the situation gets dangerous they realize they have traveled too far and The Shimmer is too unpredictable to start heading back.

I have really only scratched the surface here, and I struggle not to give too much away.  What is waiting for these ladies inside The Shimmer is sometimes beautiful and often-times grotesque.  The film has a bizarre, unsettling tone that even when the film is revealing its beauty there is a creepy quality about it.  Every bizarre occurrence is explained scientifically and sounds at least reasonable.  The most curious is a stalk of plant-life with a DNA that has formed into a human shape.  The effect is quiet and haunting.

What makes this screenplay work is that Garland has the intelligence and the patience to tell this story as it unfolds rather than setting a trajectory and then following it through to the end.  His story builds and builds as the team goes further into The Shimmer and the circumstances get more and more bizarre.  Along the way there are allusions to Alien, Predator, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Arrival and John Carpenters remake of The Thing (there’s a recall of the “tied to the couch” scene that is terrifying beyond words).

Movies like Annihilation are frustrating for critics to write about.  This is not the kind of movie that you describe, it’s the kind of movie that you just experience.  The journey is the best asset and ultimately the biggest downfall of a movie like this – the questions are almost always more interesting than the answers.  By that, I mean that the movie gives us a stunning third act (I was mesmerized) but then has trouble explaining what we just saw.  The experience will mean different things to different people depending on their expectations.  Less patient viewers will find it frustrating.  More patient viewers will love it, but struggle with the ending.  I’m waiting to see it again so that I can unravel its mystery even further.  It’s a journey worth taking.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2018) View IMDB Filed in: Sci-Fi/Fantasty
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