It’s destroying everything…
I’ve been struggling to think how to start this review. I was mulling over discussing the approach to “intellectualism” in film, or how Alex Garland might possibly be the most important British filmmaker currently working. I could even try my hand at discussing how one of the most powerful, visually stunning movie currently trending is a masterpiece in female-led narrative, and yet no one seems to be pushing it like certain other female-led narratives in recent years.
But, frankly, I don’t want to do any of the above. I want to discuss the phenomenal Annihilation (2018) in exactly the way I spent my two hours watching it. Mouth agape, eyes wide, phone buzzing somewhere on my darkened bedroom floor.
I’m in love.
It’s not destroying. It’s creating something new.
Somewhere in the world, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) grieves. It’s been a year since her husband disappeared, and yet she is unable to let it go. Heading home after a long day teaching future medical professionals, Lena shrugs off invitations to socialise with her peers in order to dwell in her misery. Tearfully, she mooches around her house, full of photographs of her and her husband in full military uniform – clearly where they knew each other.
Later, as Lena decorate her bedroom – a shadow passes by the door. Lena looks, and there he is. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), alive and in the flesh. Tearfully, she wraps her arms around him and kisses him – but there is something wrong.
Kane refuses, or is simply unable, to answer any of Lena’s questions. As the pair talk, Kane suddenly appears to become very ill. Convulsing, spitting blood and seemingly suffering from severe haemorrhaging and internal bleeding, Kane’s ambulance is swiftly intercepted by a series of unmarked black vehicles. Special forces pull both Kane and Lena out, taking them directly to a secret US government facility, known only as Area X.
Lena wakes up shortly afterwards in an isolated room. Observed by Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a lead psychologist in the facility, Lena is interrogated over what she may have been told by Kane while they were together. After convincing Ventress that she doesn’t know anything, Lena is escorted out to see what has happened to her husband. Locked down in quarantine and on emergency life support, Kane is stable, but far from okay.
Ventress reveals that beyond the walls of the facility, there appears to be some sort of… Shimmer. A barrier of light that is slowly growing outwards from a meteorite collision that managed to slam into a lighthouse seemingly somewhere in the Norfolk broads. Or possibly Florida. Whatever. Kane was one of a group of soldiers who were sent to investigate the interior of the Shimmer, and despite the number of people, drones and other devices that have gone inside – he is so far the only one who has walked out again.
While on the base, Lena meets a group of scientists who are due to head into the Shimmer in the next few days. First, there’s Anya, a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez); then Josie, a physicist (Tessa Thompson); and lastly, Cass, a geologist (Tuva Novotny). Desperate for answers as to her husband’s disappearance and subsequent illness, Lena convinces Ventress to be allowed into the group, citing her military experience and convenient understanding of biology.
The all-female team of scientists led by Ventress, set out to enter the Shimmer. As the group enters the shimmering light, they emerge in a rich, dense jungle of life. Lena quickly becomes separated from the group, before stumbling, disorientated into a clearing. The rest of the team are already there, surrounded by a fully established campsite. With no memory of where they are or what happened between here and the edge of the Shimmer, Anya and Josie check over their rations and find that three days’ worth of food has been eaten.
At Ventress’ insistence, the group march on, and soon find themselves beside a swamp. Lena is quick to point out that the flora seems increasingly impossible, with multiple species of flower seemingly emerging from the same branch. Things get weirder still when Cass is suddenly attacked by what appears to be a giant, mutated alligator. Lena is able to kill the creature, but is shocked to find that, like the flowers, the creature appears to be made up of multiple species – in particular, possessing the rows of teeth such as that of a shark.
Things get increasingly surreal from this point. As the group head deeper into the Shimmer, they begin to find evidence of previous expeditions, including Kane and his squad. Life appears to have infested even the concrete of the buildings trapped within the Shimmer, with Lena pointing out that much of the strange shapes and discoloured blobs appear to have grown within the walls like a tumour.
Things really take a turn when the group find a memory card left by the soldiers before them. Here, the scientists watch as Kane takes a knife to another member of his team, cutting this stomach open and revealing the twisting, convulsing intestines inside. His body, it seems, is becoming something else entirely.
But, as night falls, the true extent of the Shimmer’s danger begins to rear its ugly head. As the group turns on one another, each scientist is pushed to the brink of their resolve. It soon becomes clear that Ventress is desperate to face down the mystery at the epicentre, while Lena simply wishes to fight it.
But who will win, in the end? Will we discover the truth of what is behind the Shimmer? Will Lena make it back to Kane? Will she even be the same woman that walked inside the Shimmer, or will she find herself changing beneath the prism of light overhead?
As ever, when a film is truly excellent, I never want to spoil it. You will just have to damn well turn your phone off, give Netflix a nudge and enjoy the film for what it is. A masterpiece.
It’s hard to lay out what’s going on with a film like this, because, frankly, there is so much more to it than simple story. Annihilation is a true work of art, with breathtaking visuals blending in with some of Garland’s best directorial work (yes, alright, it’s his second film, but even so!). Having read up on some of the background of the film, Garland has said that while Annihilation is indeed based on a book – the first of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy – it was never adapted in a way that was strictly true to the text. Instead, Garland interpreted the film as a “memory of the book,” seemingly in an effort to capture the dream-like nature of the story.
Oh, boy. If Garland was going for dream-like, he absolutely nailed it. Annihilation is like wandering through an evening of tramadol, washed down with Sainsbury’s basic red wine. You start off curious and end up staring at a lot of very different colours sprayed across the wall.
The core conceit of the story is that cells can be merged, re-written and transformed. This is best symbolised when the group find themselves in a field of human-shaped plants, each having grown using the basic DNA structure of human life. Plants obeying the flat-pack of instructions of humanity is, frankly, an image that I will struggle to get out of my head – and has left a haunting echo in my mind, far more so than some of the more deliberate attempts to invoke emotion in the audience – for me, at least.
The music, too, while used sparingly, really set me on edge when it needed to. In particular, the scene in the lighthouse was deeply unsettling, and definitely reminded me a lot of Under The Skin (2013) – and not just because of the obvious visuals.
Despite some slightly contrived goings-on around Lena, Natalie Portman’s performance was incredible throughout the film, and had a truly believable chemistry with Oscar Isaac during the scenes with Lena and Kane together before he disappeared. That said, despite the welcome appearance of Benedict Wong as the Government interrogator, I hate it when we see the protagonist explain the story from an interrogation room, with flashbacks and things. Hate it. Hate it. Is it enough to ruin this film? NOPE.
So, overall, wow. Watch it. There’s really no excuse. This is a film that, yet again, left me feeling more intelligent than I was going in, but still so full of questions. Ah, hell. I guess I’m gonna just have to watch it again.
Yours, A P Tyler