Directed by: Alex Garland
Written by: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny
Anything out of the scope of reality for humans automatically receives the label of danger. It happens when thinking about extraterrestrial life and comes to fruition when “the shimmer” lands and spreads on Earth. As a result, this idea infiltrates every layer of Annihilation as the character learn more about themselves in a way that will confuse audience members but give them something to think about for ages.
After escaping the shimmer, Lena (Natalie Portman) gets interviewed about her experience and she vaguely remembers. She then details the journey of five scientists that answer the call to combat this strange shimmer that appeared on Earth. Everything in the shimmer remains mysterious, but the government sees it as a threat and enlists these women after other past failed attempts. Once the scientists enter the shimmer, they discover the hallucinogenic effects and the horrors that appear.
Annihilation has plenty to unpack and many different ways the character motivations can be interpreted. It’s a film that refuses to spoon-feed any information and remains a harrowing experience. Through the different character motivations, it displays the self-destructive nature of each character and how it informs what they do once they enter the shimmer. Each of them has their internal battles and their issues manifest themselves in their actions and their thoughts. The shimmer never gets defined, but we get to see the effect it has on these scientists.
Once the women enter, they cannot sleep well and one morning they awake to not knowing how long they’ve been in the shimmer. Eventually, they figure out that it has been four days. All of the animals appear differently than they do on Earth, as it seems that their DNA merges with other species. Examples include when they avoid the attack of a crocodile with shark teeth and different plants growing from the same stem. Nothing feels right about what they encounter and they soon discover that the more time they spend there, they will share the same fate. All of it culminates in each character making life-affirming decisions and receiving a poetic ending to their quest within the shimmer.
Natalie Portman shines as the protagonist of the film, which did not surprise me in the slightest. In the last decade, she has taken on many challenging roles in thought-provoking pieces of art and does so once again in Annihilation. She steps into the character of Lena as she battles trying to figure out her life after her husband becomes the only survivor of the shimmer. She takes on the quest of exploring the shimmer because he falls ill because of something that occurred in there. It becomes a fact-finding mission for her as she wants to save the life of her husband. Her character, however, partly makes this decision from her guilt as she has not been the best wife while he went away on this mission. She participated in self-destructive behavior, which informs her character decisions as well as the others.
Along with Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny really drive the emotional core of this film as their motives permeate throughout the plot. Just like Lena, their characters engage in self-destructive behavior they must atone for when they enter the shimmer. In the case of Ventress, she battles with her cancer and she hopes that this venture provides the opportunity to find some sort of cure or an answer to all of her pain. Each of them has pivotal moments in the shimmer where they decide to either fight off the horrors or succumb to it. Some of their arcs come together in a particularly horrifying scene that involves the Scream Bear. The creature and sound design for that particular beast creates an experience so terrifying that I could not stop thinking about it for a week after watching the film. It also comes together through the mixing of DNA but Scream Bear’s composition feels much more sinister because it reveals even more of what can merge within the shimmer, which makes it even more unsettling.
Director, Alex Garland, once again demonstrates his excellent vision and filmmaking style with his work in Annihilation. This film follows his rapturous feature debut of Ex Machina, where he also explores the sinister and evil side of science-fiction. Even when things appear nice and shiny in his film, an unsettling layer will soon become much more apparent. The pure visual splendor this film provides creates a visual effects extravaganza for the different types of creatures that could appear in the shimmer. Garland effortlessly creates tension in each scene, because everything in the shimmer feels haunting and scary, as the women have no idea what could come at them next. He adapted the material from a book I have not read, but to visualize the dread and discovery in this film dazzled me. He successfully pulled me into this story as each character progresses through this hellscape.
One nice feature, this film also employs comes from its casting. The 2010s has provided us with many gender-swapped stories that used to be centered around men. These films typically arrive with much fanfare about the fact that the cast centers around women. Annihilation does just that but never really calls attention to it, as the story centers on their experiences as they try to accomplish what men could not do. In a perfect world, films would come out where attention around the demographics of casting decisions would be non-existent. In this world, everyone would get equal opportunities and an all-female cast would just be that. Annihilation felt like it had that through its storytelling and casting a diverse set of women to take on this new discovery.
I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of the symbolism and analysis that could be done about this film. The final sequences of the film display gorgeous imagery mixed with a terrifying and unsettling score. It leaves much to the interpretation and I adore when films have the confidence in leaving things unanswered. Annihilation shows that science-fiction still has plenty of material to show humanity at their best and worst along with creating a microcosm for our world. The issues these women face are grounded but the way they get resolved feels fantastical. Annihilation represents my favorite type of film because I will continue to consume its message and look at different ways to interpret its purpose, as it continually challenges me and pulls me further into the shimmer.