Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” is Ambitious and Gorgeous Science Fiction Storytelling

In Annihilation, a band of women set off to investigate a bizarre natural phenomenon that has resulted from a fallen meteorite. Alex Garland directs the film and wrote the screenplay (based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, which is part of a trilogy). The mysterious event has been named “The Shimmer” in deference to the prismatic bubble that surrounds a lighthouse at the epicenter – a bubble that is growing. No previous expeditions have returned. Like Garland’s previous directorial work Ex Machina, Annihilation dazzles with its visuals, sports an intriguing and tight plot, and ultimately leaves the audience with few explicit answers about what exactly has been going on. There has always been power in subtext, especially in science fiction, and Annihilation is an impressive and intelligent new entry to the genre.

The plot is a basic adventure with the intent to discover the nature of “The Shimmer”. At Area X (the code name for the secret research base), a team has been assembled to venture inwards: Anya the paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), Cass the anthropologist (Tuva Novotny), Josie the physicist (Tessa Thompson), and Dr. Ventress the psychologist and team-leader (Jennifer Jason Leigh). However, days before their expedition launches, Lena the biologist (Natalie Portman) is brought to Area X. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Issac) unexpectedly turned up a year after he was sent into The Shimmer, and is the only one to come back. Intent on discovering some way to save Kane’s life, Lena fights her way into the expedition, though keeps her relationship with Kane secret.

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The Shimmer.  A Prismatic Kaleidoscope Bubble.

Garland structures Annihilation using two separate techniques: three chapters as the expedition creeps closer to the source of the disturbance, joined together by a framing device where Lena is being interviewed about the expedition (so, she obviously survives – or does she?) . The organization of the story can be thought of as concentric circles: Area X, which contains The Shimmer, which contains The Lighthouse, our expedition’s ultimate goal. Telling the story in this form allows for two effects to take place: the audience immediately understands the goal and where our protagonists are in relation to that goal, and as we move closer to the destination we subconsciously feel the stakes rise and the tension increase. The framing device adds clarity to specific plot points, but does remove some of the tension. On my first viewing, I consider this framing to be a bit of a weakness, but I may change my mind later.

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“Yes, we have some questions that are going to conveniently explain things for the audience”

As the characters wade through The Shimmer, we’re introduced to each of them in varying degrees (obviously, Portman is the focus). Everyone has knowledge and expertise, they’re all brave people, but each have their own demons. The characters themselves are impressive, but there isn’t really anything especially noteworthy about the performances. Jennifer Jason Leigh has a kind of sleepiness about her, a detachment, and most of the weight is on Portman. But, all of these actors deliver fine performances, nothing that really detracts from the storytelling. I also dig the idea that they are all somewhat wounded, and that their foray into The Shimmer is some kind of self-destructive coping mechanism.

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Are the Plants people?  Did the people become plants?  Is there a difference?  Are you a plant?

Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Annihilation is its cinematography, captured by director of photography Rob Hardy (who also worked with Garland on Ex Machina). The film looks very bright, green, and colorful, especially as we get closer to the Lighthouse. The Shimmer itself looks like a huge bubble, refracting the light with a prismatic sheen. It’s surface ebbs and flows slightly, never quite constant. And thus, the denizens of The Shimmer follow suit. The Shimmer lends the entire palette of Annihilation with a fluorescent, almost psychedelic tone. Sometimes it is subtle, like when the spectator is treated to rainbow-colored lens flares, lending everything a weird and eerie hue. And sometimes it is overt, like when observing a collection of multi-colored lichens. But, it is always with purpose; the images themselves give Annihilation an alien feel. Plus, there’s a lot of weird shit actually going down onscreen.

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Just a dude exploded into a vast network of plants and lichen.  Kids’ stuff by Annihilation standards.  Circle of Life.

A lot of the fun of a well done piece of hard and intelligent science fiction lay in experiencing it for yourself and theorizing and explaining your brain out. Annihilation has these opportunities in droves. The film chiefly deals with ideas of mutation, unchecked growth, and the refraction of information. We see these ideas play out through mimicry, transformation of creatures or characters into something else, and ever outright duplication in some forms. Yes, our hands are held a little by the testimonial framing device, but mostly we’re left to piece together a lot of the clues by ourselves. Some specific details are left completely unexplained, or only dealt with in theory. Spoiler alert, yes there is an alien creature at the end of the film, but it is more of an alien force than one specific thing, and we aren’t offered much of an explanation regarding its nature. The motivation of the creature is left undeclared, if it even has one. Overall, its a nice collection of ideas, perhaps a little sloppy in the ultimate execution (but, once again, this could just require a rewatch or two in order to collect the ideas).

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Guess what’s in the dark hole?  It certainly isn’t some kind of psychedelic floating alien cancer being.

Annihilation is the kind of film that should definitely be seen by aficionados of the genre, especially keeping in mind that there are elements of body horror, monster movie, and mind-bending science fiction here (think Solaris (1972) or maybe even 2001: A Space Odyssey). The final act is astounding from many perspectives, and the last 20 minutes or so is practically without dialogue. Instead, the bizarre visuals unfold and the disturbing, discordant soundtrack positively slams into the spectators brain. It’s pretty fun, albeit weird, confusing, and scary.

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This skull-faced titanic bear creature is much scarier than it looks.  And it looks pretty fucking scary.

Annihilation is far from perfect, but it is a strong bit of hard science fiction that allows the audience to participate in the storytelling, in the vein of Arrival and Under the Skin. It is packed with powerful storytelling, a beautiful vision of nature, and the artistry and ambition of the film is something to be appreciated. Thoughtful and complex, out there as can be, and gorgeous and horrible to behold, Alex Garland’s second film may never ascend to the heights of Ex Machina. But, in my estimation, it is every bit as deserving of high praise.

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