A surreal and beautiful movie that is unlike anything you’ve likely ever seen… at least since 2001: A Space Odyssey.
This is a difficult movie. A very good movie, but a difficult movie. Everything about it, from the odd rainbow hues to the pacing and time structure, to the grinding throb of Geoff Barrow’s score was designed to keep the viewer off center. The cast, full of terrific actresses Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny all slightly underplay their characters giving the film a somber weight to it. When the flashes of emotion come out, they burst like the curious colored shimmer that emerges from the swampy background. For a film that has so much color to it, there is a juxtaposition of really gray tones, and director Alex Garland and his ace cinematographer Rob Hardy use these contrasts in a very painterly manner.
(Minor Plot Spoilers Ahead!)
Portman plays Lena, a biology professor at Johns Hopkins University, and a former army soldier, who is still getting over the loss of her soldier husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) who went missing on a mission over a year ago. When Kane mysteriously shows up in her life, he is devoid of any emotion or recognition, and it is soon revealed that his body is going through rapid organ failure. On the way to the hospital, Lena and Kane are abducted by the military, and when Lena comes to, she gets interrogated by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Leigh) as to how Kane managed to get back from his mission. When Lena expresses confusion, Ventress unveils the mysterious Area X, which has taken over the Gulf Coast (The Southern Reach), where a strange multicolored veil named the Shimmer has appeared, and from which several teams of investigators, including Kane, had gone in and nothing ever came back out… except for Kane.
Lena decides to join an all-female team to cross the Shimmer barrier and report back as to what is behind the rainbow curtain. Handily enough, there is a need for a biologist on the team, and her military training is a good fit as well, so Ventress allows Lena into the party. Lena has nothing left to lose and is desperate to try and save her husband’s life, and soon she finds out that the other members of her team already know that this may be a one-way trip. Once on the other side, the swamp has been transformed in spectacular ways, both lovely and grotesque. The plants and animals are all mutating in strange ways, mergers of plant and animal, species blending with other species, and chaotic forms erupting from random bodies. Physicist Josie (Thompson) describes what is happening as Genetic refraction, and there are multiple references to the splitting imagery throughout the film. Prominently featured are water glasses that warp and distort the images of what’s on the other side of the glass. Clever!
When the women discover what happened to the previous teams that have been sent through, they get rattled, as the recognition that their very beings are being transmuted just by being in this environment. The second act exposes the fears and frustrations of the group as they get besieged by the mutating creatures in the changing swamp, and also come apart due to internal conflicts as secrets get exposed that tear at the fabric of the team. This for me was the most powerful act of the film. It is also the point where it is a horror film. It was tense and hard to tear your eyes from the screen.
Annihilation felt to me very much like 2001 A Space Odyssey. Beautiful, cold, with a gripping second act, and a totally boffo mind-blowing third act that I couldn’t quite grasp. This is clearly a film that if you saw it after dropping a couple of tabs of acid would make more sense. Mirror doppelgangers, pulsing orbs of flesh and light, ritual arrangements of skeletons, crystal trees, and a cancerous radial spray of something rooty/viney/veiny coming out of the Lighthouse. And if you find my descriptions confusing, it’s because it is. You may find this ending brilliant, or you may find it frustratingly baffling, or you just may find it overdone… but Alex Garland is certainly channeling Georgia O Keefe and Salvador Dali, coming down the stretch here. All we needed was a melting clock to come sliding down the wall, and the picture would be complete.
Annihilation is based on a similarly dense and loopy book by Jeff VanderMeer. I had previously admitted in the Scariest Things Podcast Episode VIII that I had a hard time getting through the book, but was really hoping that the movie would assist my level of understanding for the source material. I don’t know that I can definitively answer that. The movie themes are quite confusing, the further you get into the story. I applaud Garland for actually giving the characters names, though. VanderMeer just gave his characters roles, without names, a decision that put up a real barrier to the reader from identifying with the protagonists. In the film, you do feel a certain distance from all the characters, much like 2001, and that usually troubles me, but at least you could hang on to the characters when they were on the screen. Note that in the book, all the characters are women, so this is not a case like Ghostbusters, where the source material got genderswapped. Garland made a decision to de-glamourize all of his characters, and apart from the beginning of the film where Portman looked like her usual spectacularly pretty self, Lena looked worn and haggard. All the women looked like they had seen multiple life trials, and this accentuated the isolated feel of Annihilation. I would have to say that I admire this movie more than I would say that I enjoyed it. It is all head, and the heart is very, very cold. As an artistic piece, this is a must-see. Garland has planted another flag as a visionary director who deserves consideration along with Innaritu, Del Toro, and Villeneuve as this generation’s visual auteurs. That said, as a piece of entertainment, it’s rather too melancholy to be considered fun.
Annihilation is Rated R for strong violence and grotesque imagery and is in wide release throughout the US in theaters now.