*Warning: Spoilers Ahead*
I think it’s fair to say that we are always searching for meaning. As a collective we yearn for answers, whether that is through religion, philosophy, science, film, simple conversation, or any other way in which we process our surroundings. Some of us contemplate the possibility of other forms of intelligent life in the vast universe, while others believe in God or some sort of higher being. Some seek to expand our understanding through studying the world around us, while others attempt to come to grips with our internal selves through storytelling or psychology. But, in some ways, underneath all of this postulating, reasoning, and faith is a basic fear, the fear that rational life is just an anomaly. This idea, that we are just a random byproduct of the processes of life is a central source of horror for the characters at the center of Alex Garland’s latest heady science fiction production, Annihilation.
Sitting somewhere between the more literal sci-fi slashers like Alien or The Thing, and the ephemeral surrealist dread of Takovsky’s Stalker, Garland’s take on the genre is a balance between cerebral dreamscapes, and direct exercises in gore. The story begins with Lana (Natalie Portman), a college biology teacher who is still coming to grips with the loss of her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). But then, roughly a year after Kane initially set off on his mission, he returns with a case of severe amnesia. From there Lana is introduced to the destination of Kane’s last mission, a steadily growing quarantined zone referred to as The Shimmer. Lana decides to take part in the next expedition into the Shimmer, a seemingly doomed affair that has claimed the lives of every soul that has set foot inside, aside from Kane. Their objective is to reach the center of the anomaly, the lighthouse where a meteorite crashed, and to identify why the phenomenon is slowly expanding.
Lana’s crew is made entirely up of woman, each with a different relevant profession (physicist, paramedic, psychologist, and geologist). But beyond their resourcefulness and skill at each of their trades, they also have something else in common. They’re “damaged goods” as the geologist Sheppard points out. To varying extents, each of the heroines are battling with the forces of nihilism and depression. Luckily, instead of portraying these women as extreme manic depressives, their indicators into their mental states are subtle. They laugh, rib each other, and brush off the initial weirdness of their surroundings. But under their guises, it becomes increasingly apparent that each had traumatic events in their past. As the stoic psychologist Ventress points out, why else would they sign up for a suicide mission? But, instead of associating their actions as a straightforward act of suicide, Ventress further characterizes their actions as less of a decision, and more of a self-destructive impulse. A rebellion against the so-called rational thought that we believe defines us as a species, but one that is entangled in our very DNA. Life is represented more as a source of chaos, than as an entity that exists within the confines of rationalism.
Lana’s introductory explanation of the basic process of a cell posits this concept, that a mindless organism, a blueprint, is the basis of all life. The manifestations of life in the Shimmer mirror this idea. Its creations are equally beautiful and horrifying. We witness plant life that has adopted the shape of people, fogs imbued with a rainbow hue, and hybrids between deer and plant life. The squad of woman seem equally transfixed and enchanted by the scientific wonders they are witnessing. But this beauty is constantly tempered by the hideous and deadly monsters it creates. This depiction of life doesn’t prescribe some ultimate meaning, or purpose, just a random sequence of reactions that ultimately leave its characters in a scramble for answers. It’s only in hindsight that Lena is able to identify that the Shimmer wasn’t some malicious force, but simply an embodiment of the uncaring chaos of natural life. As she states it wasn’t destroying, it was simply changing.
Beyond the high-minded philosophizing throughout, Annihilation’s construction is quite sturdy as well. Working as an amalgamation of horror-trappings, and more metaphorical films like Arrival, the pacing of the journey deeper into the Shimmer is equally balanced between moments of mesmerizing and fantastical imagery, and abrupt bursts of dread. The heavy post-processing on the lighting heightens the dream-like experience of this space. This aesthetic is cohesive, the mysterious rainbow color-palate seamlessly blending from a picturesque wreath of plants, to a expansive and hideous Cronenburg-esque human carcass. The editing also reflects the mental state of our protagonists. Abrupt cuts lead into time jumps and flashbacks that allow us to feel their growing sense of disorientation. The deterioration of their mental states feels justified between their glimpses into what’s to come in the form of a video tape, and their own experiences. On top contributing to the daze the characters find themselves in, the flashbacks also lead to the revelations regarding Lana and Kane’s motivations for partaking in the mission. This additional layer of complexity is well-seeded and pays off quite nicely. Unfortunately, this subtly is undercut by the “mission-debrief” presentation of the story. While I appreciate the inevitability provided by this format, it does often feel like we are being hand-fed the motivations of the protagonist.
In my cursory research into the movie ahead of time, it seemed as though Annihilation was experiencing a similar reaction to Aronofsky’s Mother, that being wide-spread bafflement among most viewing audiences. However, aside from the ending, it seems as there is little grounds for this comparison in the grand scheme of things. While the Lovecraftian descent into Cosmic Horror during the conclusion initially came off as somewhat unearned in my mind, this depiction of life ultimately feels consistent with the rest of the film’s ideas. Life mimics without knowing why, multiplying for no reason other than because that is what it does. The ambiguity of the alien’s intentions echoes the ambiguity of the natural process of life’s proliferation. Is there a point, or is it all just senseless miming?
Rating: 4 / 5
Image Source: Nerdist