One might bear witness to an inadvertent realization strongly emblematic of the movie experience midway through Annihilation, that could otherwise slip undetected.. In my case my other half had to mutter words of impatience under her breath for my eureka moment. By the same token I was guilty of failing to notice that a cast of women was supposed to mean something until several reviews and podcasts pointed this out. In essence, I was surrounded—and outnumbered—by the fairer sex throughout Garland’s much-anticipated second feature, never once stopping to ponder the diversity (ahem) milestone before me. Chalk it as the hallmark of an engaging piece of cinema, although I’ll also posit that this movie wouldn’t have worked with a cast boasting five-times the testosterone levels before guns are drawn. This hasn’t stopped the outrage brigade from picking [more] flaws, although some critics dubbed Portman’s character, Lena, as too bland to garner empathy, a charge dispensed equally between actor and director.
We can spend the keystrokes refuting such “failings” one by one or, instead, expend similar resources recounting time spent marveling at the gawk-inducing reels while mesmerized by a scientific premise brimming with the inventive bonafides of a truly curious mind. The thematic heart of the film is the biological condition of cells as shown in Lena’s lecture to a college class. Cells duplicate, and in theory ought to retain some degree of immortality, with the counterpoint expiration of life being the sign of flawed design or creator. Also the stage of the film is an anomalous, expanding zone known as The Shimmer. Christened Area-X, this phenomenon is classified and enigmatic, with origins linked to the crash site of a recent meteor. Its boundary wall is visible from one vantage point—the land-based secret facility known as the Southern Reach and tasked with managing its containment—given the meteor landed inside a national forest along the coast of Florida’s panhandle. Its ethereal appearance resembles a windshield smeared with drooping soapy water, its prism colors following translucent blots and streak patterns, while a meteorological miasma emitting a whipping and a cracking frames the possibilities inside the unknown in the perfect shroud.
In a previous post I mentioned when the film marketing machine can hamper expectations (hint: it’s all the time and for me it’s a balancing act), and one of the trailers I’d seen for Annihilation showed a protagonist determined to find her husband in an alien world imagined as a hellish wilderness dreamscape, possibly on another planet. What a generic bore that would have been, I remember feeling, but it was Garland and I wasn’t not going to see for myself. Luckily for me, enough time would pass whereby anticipation succumbed to forgetfulness and everyday distractions before Netflix ended up with the distribution rights.
The husband part was true to memory, and Lena’s husband, Kane, is both employed by a military outfit and subject to long absences on secret missions. An early scene implies twelve months is ample time for Lena to let go, i.e. there is no sense in holding out hope with no knowledge of his whereabouts. Kane suddenly walks in the house, but it is obvious he is off, uncommunicative and ailing. In the ambulance the couple is intercepted by a government agency and are taken away. Once awake, Lena is inside the Southern Reach and Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is introduced. Previous expeditions to the Shimmer over the three years since its discovery have failed to return a single survivor and have all been both military and male. Until now. That lone survivor, Kane, is barely surviving.
The current crew is Cass, a geomorphologist, Josie, a physicist and Anya, a medic. Ventress, the chief psychologist in charge, rounds up this team with Lena, a biologist and former Army soldier, as the final volunteer. Ventress also decides to go along this time. Strange occurrences confirm Ventress’ briefing in the first scene inside—disorientation and loss of communication with base—which to her frustration ought to bear no repeating. The crew trek on foot and are first seen awaking to estimate the time lapsed through food servings meant to cover two weeks. Their march toward the lighthouse takes them through thick forests dotted by a murky swamp, the abandoned Souther Reach facility and an evacuated village before ending at the shoreline.
Above all, Annihilation is an audiovisual treat staged to tease out introspective musings on death. Its centerpiece scenery involves an uncanny and soothing tapestry sparsely lit by prism-colored sun rays piercing the hanging overgrowth. The combination of its lush flora and fauna hybrids punctuated by relics of urbanization is hyperreal, and once the first life forms are presented, the film’s tone begins to take shape alongside commentary on topics like the role of our inescapable, impulsive drive in self-destruction. Garland balances these complex ideas and visual presentation with digestible set-pieces and an even pacing that lends to an ease of watchability and dissection, but little more. The events as shown can be said to unfold over three or four days, all clearly marked by ‘camp and decamp’ cycles, despite what Lena, food rations and the scientists at base have separately concluded for everyone.
Their first stop takes them to a river-side hut where impossible flora and an albino alligator is confronted and subdued. That same afternoon they arrive at the deserted Souther Reach headquarters before the Shimmer’s expansion forced an evacuation. They happen upon a memory card containing a video of Kane cutting open another explorer’s abdomen demonstrating how mutations impact humans in real-time. The Shimmer, it turns out, drives a pollination of genetic structure, resulting in the assembly, disassembly and reassembly of everything within its sphere into life forms that are at times bizarre and beautiful. And the effects grow stronger the closer one approaches its gravitational center.
That night, the scientists take shelter in a watch tower taking turns keeping watch from the ground. Unable to see in the dark, they’re attacked by an animal that turns out to be a bear. It snatches Cass and drags her into the woods. The next day Cass is confirmed dead, while the rest arrive at the evacuated village and stay in a house resembling civilization. That night Anya goes fully mental and ties everyone up when suddenly Cass’ voice is heard crying for help. The bear is triggered by her bravado attempt to save Cass, and is lured back into the house where it is shown in its full mutated glory; a skin-peeled, elongated snout resembling a pig’s with gorilla canines and the body of a black bear. It is a gory demise for Anya but nothing a few pulls of an automatic gun’s trigger would not dispatch. Its finals throes having somehow infused Cass’ voice and drying cries all along.
Garland interjects these episodes of action with illuminating conversations and confessions that aren’t the exclusive domain of the savvy and savant, with nothing beyond the comprehensive ability of the layman. After Cass is attacked, Ventress utters the aforementioned motto for cinema-goers amid the chorus of dissenting positions. “I’m going to the lighthouse and you just have to decide whether you’re coming along or not.” Up to then, they have been attacked by two animals, with one casualty suffered, with every suggestion of increasing stakes to follow. The crew is split between Josie and Anya wanting to turn back, Ventress’ unwavering drive to reach the lighthouse and Lena’s compromise solution between both camps. For Garland, there is no reward for the impatient as there is none for shortcuts in The Shimmer. Ville Perdu is a stone’s throw away from their intended destination. When the crew is reduced to three, all would sit on an even keel. Whatever is in the lighthouse, Ventress wants to face it, Lena wants to fight it, and Josie wants neither of those things. Josie postulates a theory for all this carnage, as does Ventress for the human condition and Lena for the biological; if light and signals refract within this realm, what is stopping DNA from undergoing the same process? This does not begin to answer questions about what occurs in the lighthouse and thereafter (and why so?), merely a framework for the drama to exist in. Ventress and Josie also push more compelling resolutions to measure alongside Lena’s; if self-destruction is ingrained in the human at a cellular level and in the psyche, wouldn’t there be apt release for the tortured provided a willingness?
The chance to witness a sophomore slump averted for a promising contemporary film director is more a win for cinema than Garland. In Ex Machina, the horror was submerged by a tech-driven discourse on being and sentience despite a flawed arbitrary tool in the Turing test. In Annihilation, the horror can’t stay drowned out for long; in fact evolving from visceral to cerebral to existential. The final thirty minutes, all taking place in the lighthouse and the aftermath, include the showpiece sequence and the big reveal itself. The alien, the foreign, unexplained, unfathomable, and possibly formless, remains so. Garland does not fall into any self-induced traps, and keeps the perplexity constant and consistent in evading explanation and providing much meaning to what the ending holds.