Around the midway point of “Annihilation” one character says to another “We’re all damaged goods here.” This seemingly inconsequential line of dialogue is one of several keys to unlocking the secrets of Alex Garland’s trippy science-fiction mindbender. It’s one of several statements or conversations that offer meaning to what we see, yet unraveling the mystery is a bit tougher than it sounds.
Garland’s previous film 2015’s “Ex Machina” was his directorial debut and showed an affection for toying with sci-fi genre norms and conventions. Garland considers himself a writer first and his genre roots actually go back a bit to his time as a novelist and screenwriter. As with “Ex Machina”, “Annihilation” sees him handling both the writing and directing duties.
The film is loosely adapted from the first volume of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 Southern Reach Trilogy. Garland has called it an “adaptation of atmosphere” with a “memory of the book”. He takes concepts from the novel and gives each a good twist making his film very much its own thing. I also couldn’t help but see shades of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”, Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and more recently Villeneuve’s “Arrival” just to name a few.
Giving an introduction to the story seems almost pointless since the meat of it is found in the mystery and metaphors. But here goes: Shortly after a mysterious object from space crashes along the United States coastline, an amorphous anomaly forms. For three years the U.S. government have watched it expand and every military expedition into the anomaly has failed. The soldiers who enter immediately lose communication with the outside and have no sense of time or place. Even worse, none of the teams have returned.
Enter Lena played by Natalie Portman, a biology professor emotionally detached following the disappearance and presumed death of her military husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). After a year away Lena is stunned when Kane suddenly shows up. But something is about him is off. He has no recollection of where he has been or how he got home. He quickly becomes violently ill. On the way to the hospital in sweeps the U.S. government to take Lena and Kane to a top-secret facility near the anomaly.
Lena is briefed by a psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She learns the anomaly is called ‘The Shimmer’ and is slowly engulfing unpopulated swamplands. But concerns are that its growing blob-like borders will eventually swallow cities, states, and so on. Therefore a new team prepares to enter with the mission of reaching ground zero, acquiring data, and making it out alive. Learning of a connection between the Shimmer and her husband, Lena joins the expedition in hopes of finding some answers.
This time the team is made up mostly of scientists instead of soldiers and women instead of men. It’s an interesting assortment of characters. In addition to Lena and Ventress we get Gina Rodriguez as a Chicago paramedic, Tessa Thompson as a timid physicist, and Tuva Novotny as a protective geologist. Each woman fits the above description of “damaged goods” and each come into the Shimmer with their own unique perspective and purpose.
The film’s non-linear structure adds to the overall puzzle. Flashbacks and flash-forwards rich with meaning not only fill in story gaps but reveal some of the key themes. And it toys with time, not to make it needlessly complex, but to feed us narrative and thematic clues. I’m not sure how mainstream audiences will respond to the demand for attention and contemplation. It’s unashamedly cerebral and Garland isn’t interested in playing by genre rules. Sometimes he even breaks his own. For me that was a real strength.
I found discovery to be a fundamental component both for us and the characters. Take the Shimmer itself – Garland and his crew visualize a truly fascinating off-kilter creation. The exterior emanates both beauty and menace. Think of light being bent through a detergent bubble. The soapy glow offers a stunning effect yet at the same time it’s both ominous and foreboding. The same contrast is seen inside – beautiful albeit unnatural flora mixed with terrifying animal mutations.
I really don’t want to say more because (as cliché as it sounds) this is a movie best experienced. The atmosphere alone was enough to suck me in from the gorgeously discomforting visuals and effects to Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s unsettling score filled with moody tones and occasional strums of a folksy guitar. It’s all quite effective. Garland has said his intent was to make the Shimmer “truly alien”. Mission accomplished.
But it all gets back to the movie’s meaning, something Garland (thankfully) is unwilling to spoon-feed us. Some have pointed out its dealings with depression, grief, guilt, and the meaning of being human. I believe it speaks to all of those things. More than anything else I heard it speaking the loudest about mankind’s penchant for self-destruction. But one of the truly great things about “Annihilation” is the ambiguity, not for the sake of being ambiguous, but to allow us to mediate and consider what it is saying to us. That’s a special trait the movie has in common some of the very best science fiction.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS
Great review! What I really loved about this film was how it could be interpreted in multiple ways. My interpretation’s fairly similar to yours, though I’ve also read some other stuff online. I’m glad Garland won’t give us the true meaning as it makes every interpretation of the film the “correct” one to the person making it up.
VERY well put. I feel the same way. Some of the interpretations I’ve read have been very compelling. Left me seeing the film in some interesting new ways. And all of the analyzing and discussing wouldn’t have existed if Garland put everything out there for us.
What did you think of Portman? I still don’t know where I land on her as an actress but I felt she was really good here.
Thanks! I think that Portman is an excellent actress (see “Black Swan”, “Jackie”, “Léon”, “V for Vendetta”…), and I thought that she was good as well in this film.
I wasn’t as taken with her in Black Swan and V as most, but Jackie opened my eyes quite a bit.
Ah too bad, I really love her in “Black Swan” and “V for Vendetta”. I personally wasn’t the biggest fan of “Jackie”, but she was absolutely fantastic in her role.
I agree. “Jackie” had some weird narrative rhythms I couldn’t get in tune with. But you’re right, Portman was fantastic.
I wanted to see this but I didn’t have the time nor money as I’m hoping to have it available at my local library.
I would really be anxious to hear you thoughts. I had to see it a second time before really having a grip on where I landed. That second viewing opened it up even more. Be sure to let me know what you think about it.
Great review Keith! I liked this one quite a bit, but wasn’t as taken with it as Ex Machina. That being said, it was a really good watch. Glad to see you liked it so much!
Thank you! I was glued to this thing from the start. I was late getting to it so by the time I watched it I knew it was supposed to be trippy and cerebral movie. Still I had to see it twice to really feel comfortable writing about it (if that makes any sense).
It definitely makes sense. I would like to rewatch it again sometime to chew on it some more.
I was even more surprised at how much my wife responded to it. She tends to pushback on really cerebral films like this.
Great review Keith! I didn’t love this one as much as Ex Machina but to be honest that was a solid 10/10 for me so it would take a lot to beat it. Loved the cast though!
Thank you! I was locked into this one throughout both viewings. It’s amazing how much more came into focus the second time around. Were there any particular themes you locked onto?
I’ll admit, this one was lost on me – in terms of meaning. I enjoyed watching the movie itself, in terms of the experience. After your review, I think I am going to see it another time. 🙂
Great to hear. A second viewing did bring some things into focus for me. It’s an unusual film for sure, but one that has stuck with me.