Reel Talk

Annihilation and the Horror of Life

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Pleasant surprises can sometimes be had to come by when you’re an obsessive film-geek like me. I frequent several film-news sites, and go to the theater and see new trailers enough that I tend to get almost every upcoming film on my radar. Usually to the point where I know enough about it that I’ve long since made up my opinion on whether or not the movie is going to be up my alley by the time it actually comes out. So, it can be nice to come across films that really seem to have been dumped on an unsuspecting public. And Annihilation certainly feels like one of these films. After Alex Garland’s exceptional debut film, Ex Machina, I knew I was going to be keeping an eye out on any future work of his, so I’d heard that he was going to be adapting the first entry in Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy. I’ve never read any of these novels, but Garland’s name was enough to get me interested. And, beyond that, I didn’t know much about this movie. I knew Natalie Portman was in it, since she’s the primary driving force behind what little marketing the movie did receive. Other than that, it was a big question mark. The trailer didn’t show much, I didn’t really investigate the plot of the novels, and then all the weird controversies about the movie started to pop up. First there was the outrage at the casting of Portman in a role that was meant for a non-white character, but the actual specifics of this case of white-washing is actually a little fuzzy, since the characters race was apparently never specified in the first book, and that’s all Garland ever read, not intending to make the entire trilogy. But then there was the announcement that the film was apparently getting dumped around the world. It was going straight to Netflix, and seemed to be getting a token theatrical release in America before suffering a similar fate of obscurity. Which didn’t exactly bode well for the quality of the film. But, my love for Ex Machina and a pathological need to see movies in the theater was enough to spur me to see this film on the big screen. And boy am I glad I did, because this movie is fascinating. The general public is going to hate it, it’s probably going to bomb, but it’s one of the most impossible to describe and thrilling experiences I’ve had in a theater in years.

Annihilation tells the story of a biologist named Lena. She used to be in the Army before becoming an academic, and her husband Kane is still a solider, and has been missing in action for more than a year. But, when Kane suddenly reappears at their home, seemingly suffering from amnesia about the entire event, Lena becomes obsessed with the truth. But, when Kane then appears to suffer some sort of life-threatening epileptic episode, both he and Lena are picked up by a mysterious government agency and brought back to the location of Kane’s mission, a military base known as the Southern Reach. It turns out that a few years ago a meteor landed in a rural community, hitting a lighthouse, and ever since then a bizarre and explainable shimmering shroud has been emanating from the lighthouse, slowly but exponentially growing in size. The government has been studying it ever since they became aware of it, and have no idea what’s happening inside the Shimmer as it’s called. They can’t study it, and anyone who goes inside doesn’t come out. Except Kane. No one knows how he got out of the Shimmer, and what it’s doing to him. So, to get some answers, Lena offers to accompany the next group of explorers who are travelling into the Shimmer, this time all scientists. So, Lena packs up and joins her team. She’s with Ventress the psychologist, Anya the paramedic, Josie the physicist, and Cass the surveyor. The four women then step into the Shimmer, and things quickly begin to get strange.

They find it immediately hard to focus inside the Shimmer, their minds racing and seeming to be missing chunks of time. They also quickly pick up on the strange effects to the flora and fauna in the Shimmer. Plants are seemingly constantly mutating in ways that defy nature, and animals appear to be cross-breeding in ways that should be impossible, like a crocodile with the mouth of a shark. But, they continue their trek to the lighthouse, hoping the find the source of these bizarre changes. Unfortunately, when they reach a small military base where Kane and his fellow soldiers apparently camped, things start to get dire. They find evidence that Kane and his soldiers began mutating too, and were driven mad. They also encounter a horrible bear-like creature, which kills Cass. At this point Anya and Josie express a desire to turn around and leave, but Ventress and Lena convince them to keep journeying forward, to their doom. The closer they get to the lighthouse the more confusing things become, the more extreme the mutations, and the more they themselves are getting effected. Josie hypothesizes that whatever the Shimmer is, it’s refracting all DNA, changing and mixing it, including their own. The longer they spend in the Shimmer, the less like themselves they’ll become. This drives Anya to self-destructive madness and Josie to a serene detachment from humanity, and eventually makes it so Ventress and Lena are on their own. But, eventually they both reach he lighthouse, and whatever secrets that lie underneath it. From there the film gets very difficult to describe, and I highly recommend seeing the film for yourself, in a theater if at all possible. It becomes unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and the implications of the ending will leave you reeling for the foreseeable future.

 

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Annihilation is a film that I legitimately am struggling to wrap my head around. It’s really and truly unlike anything that I’ve ever seen before. I can see that influences in the film, the litany of other heady sci-fi elements that Garland clearly synthesized to create something new and bold, but it almost defies explanation and categorization. I left the theater in a stupor, and am sure that I’ll be spending the coming weeks chewing this over, figuring out new opinions and thoughts on the film. I feel like I could see it a dozen times and still have no idea what I really think of it, other than the fact that I’m sure I appreciate it. It’s the kind of big, strange sci-fi that we just don’t see that much. At least not done this successfully. I have no idea if this is an accurate adaptation of VanderMeer’s novels, and from what I’ve gathered it’s not, but Garland has created something amazing here. It’s weird and beautiful, and completely succeeds as a piece of cinema for me. The visuals are amazing and unique, and it succeeds in giving us a world just different enough from our own to create a sort of cognitive dissonance that really helps with the creepiness of the film. There’s plants that have grown in the shape of people, and human corpses that have become integrated in the plantlife of the Shimmer, all succeeding in putting the audience on edge. And it’s all supported by an absolutely terrific cast. We get five great actresses completely owning their parts and taking us on this insane voyage. Natalie Portman can often be more miss than hit for me in her roles, but she’s terrific as Lena in this film. I’m a big fan of the resurgence of Jennifer Jason Leigh lately, and the performance she gives at Ventress is amazing, giving us a character that really plays well off against the other women. Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson are amazing as always, lending some real drive to two characters that easily could have been stereotypes and little more than plot elements. Of the five Tuva Novotny gets the short end of the stick, since she’s the first fatality, but even she’s able to give us a character that feels more real than most films would bother with. And it all comes together to create this beautiful and strange film.

This is a film that’s going to criminally underseen. Hopefully the prevalence of Netflix will turn a lot of people onto this film though, because it’s really a hell of an experience. Garland seems to have taken a lifetime of sci-fi influences and weaved them all together, not unlike the changes taken place in the Shimmer, to create something new. Something bold. And something strange. It’s a film that tries to get down to one of the most universal questions of all time. What’s the point of it all? What’s the purpose of life? Everyone in this film is wanting to understand the Shimmer. Why is it here, what’s it doing, and does it have a purpose? And, by the end, the answer to these questions may be the most worrying possible. That there may be no answer. It may be random, chaotic, and ultimately futile. Just like life. Sentient life relies so incredibly on astronomical flukes. Complete accidents that have led eventually to us all. We wonder why we’re here, what the purpose of life is. And it’s entirely possible that there is no answer. That life is an accident. That things just happen sometimes without any rhyme or reason. Every character in this film is looking for some meaning in the Shimmer, a reason for what’s happening, and why. And, the film doesn’t really offer that. The ending is cryptic, and can probably be dissected for years without getting a truly satisfying answer, but I think that that’s the point. Alex Garland wasn’t going to give us the answer to the purpose of life. He was just going to show that when you seek that question, all you’re going to get is more questions. There’s no real answer, and this film shows that idea beautifully. Life is a mystery, in all of it’s maddening and frustrating complexity.

 

Annihilation was written and directed by Alex Garland and released by Paramount Pictures, 2018.

 

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