Being dumped unceremoniously onto Netflix, after a brief cinematic run in the US, was not the fate director Alex Garland wanted for his sophomore film, Annihilation. Yes, the argument goes that it will open the feature up to a larger audience, but equally the move has the danger of putting people off by painting Annihilation with the same brush as Mute or The Cloverfield Paradox. ‘Hey, those films sucked, this will suck too,’ says the disparaging person that lives at the back of my head.
One should also take into consideration that Annihilation deserves to be seen on a big screen. It’s too beautiful to be witnessed first-hand on your souped up TV, regardless of whether it’s got 4k capabilities. Garland’s film should be allowed a big enough space where it can embrace you and confound you. Your living room doesn’t do it justice. With that said, let’s move on.
Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist and former soldier, who has spent the last year mourning for her Special Forces husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who went missing whilst on duty. One inconspicuous night, Kane returns but is a shadow of his former self. He can’t remember where he was, why he was there or even how he got back. After he starts convulsing blood, Lena takes Kane to hospital but they’re intercepted by a security force who take them to Area X, a secretive organisation that’s been keeping an eye on an irregular electromagnetic field, nicknamed The Shimmer, that’s been growing for three years off the coast of America and threatens to engulf the country. Kane is put into quarantine and Lena is requested by Psychologist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to be part of her research expedition into The Shimmer. Reluctantly agreeing to do so, Lena is joined by Ventress, Physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), Geomorphologist Cass (Tova Novotny) and paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez).
Things get off to a bad start when, after stepping foot into The Shimmer, the group finds themselves days into their expedition without any idea of how they’ve gotten so far. As well as collective amnesia, the group’s communication devices don’t work. Despite these foreboding signs, the group persists and, along the way, encounter genetically modified creatures, unfamiliar plant species and horrific recordings that point to the fate of Kane’s fellow soldiers.
Much will be made of the fantastical creatures, including a screaming bear, that will chill your blood and an extended finale that has the potential to fry your brain. In fact, the ending is guaranteed to divide audiences for decades to come. That, however, is the beauty of cinema; it allows us to dissect meaning and share it with our friends.
For this critic, Annihilation is more than just a sci-fi, it’s an allegory for depression and mourning, with The Shimmer, which we’re regularly reminded changes the DNA of everything that stays there too long, acting as that hazy period when we sleepwalk from tragedy to becoming almost human again. All of the women within Lena’s group have experienced trauma and the way they behave exemplifies a coping mechanism. Ventress is angry and determined, she doesn’t want to be changed by the Shimmer. Like the widow who refuses to accept their life has changed, she loudly cries that she wants to be the same person she was. Anya’s initial flippancy is a mask that hides an anger that bubbles up inside of her when faced with the reality/unfairness of the situation. Josie, who self-harms, excepts her lot in life and shuts herself of from the rest of the world so she can’t hurt any more. And so, it goes on.
For Lena’s part, this is about coming to terms with things that were said before Kane left her and the things she did whilst he was away. As their expedition continues, she becomes as lost in her own thoughts as she does The Shimmer. Whilst the others seem resolute in their coping mechanisms, Lena chooses to punish herself by reliving mistakes and refusing to extract any joy from the happy memories she has with Kane. She’ll be asked later if she’s the same person, and her answer will be obvious.
A surprisingly deep film, Annihilation stands heads and shoulders above its Netflix counterparts. Ignore those who say it’s a headscratcher and enjoy finding your own meaning.