The latest science fiction thriller by the extraordinary Alex Garland is definitely not going to be for everyone. It is a massive risk taker whose results will enchant or alienate any that watch it. This review is for those who have watched it, so you can either relive the experience, or perhaps see why some critics and viewers are obsessed with what is being called a very different film. Here is my take on Annihilation, and why it is sensational. Of course, be aware that there are fully descriptive spoilers ahead.
Annihilation is a cinematic break through, because the film virtually destroys itself in a way that no mainstream film has since David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. For a massive production, Garland’s influences of Andrei Tarkovsky (whose film Stalker heavily inspired the pacing and treachery of Annihilation) and Ingmar Bergman (whose modernist filmmaking is what Garland was channelling) are not ideally lucrative to follow. However, the result is a mind-bending extravaganza that will leave many audiences questioning because the film turns in on itself. In many ways, you yourself experience the entrance into the Shimmer, because the film as a tangible object also warps into an indescribable, inhuman entity.
Observe the all-black title screens that turn into a hallucinogenic mush by the time the film finishes (those ending credits are as captivating as Gaspar Noé’s opening credits for Enter the Void: a similarly transcendent experience). Inspect the standard-sounding acoustic guitar soundtrack that feels like it is by-the-numbers; it disappears by the time the glitchy ambient music kicks in. Slowly but surely, the film folds in on itself. It is always told non-linearly to cause a steady uneasiness from the beginning, but the aesthetics of the film go from normal (almost too normal and plain) to completely unrecognizable. Annihilation warps with its characters in a modernist and metaphysical way. Suddenly, flash backs and the hopping between timelines is not a story telling technique, but rather a product of the swirling film that pretends to be organic like those born within the Shimmer.
The film starts off with Natalie Portman’s biologist character Lena discussing the mutations of cancer cells to her class. Cancer is definitely linked with biology, but the theme of internal sabotage is a recurrent theme throughout the film. The film doesn’t just implode on itself as a cohesive structure: its characters, too, detonate from the inside. Lena kills the sanctity of marriage by cheating on her husband (played by Oscar Isaac); his retaliation is to enter a suicide mission into the Shimmer. He refuses to tell his wife his endgame because of confidentiality, but it is also out of spite. By the end of the film, when Lena discovers her cloned self out of the luminous being that emitted out of Dr. Ventress’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) body (of whom was disintegrating from literal cancer herself), the copy mimics her every minuscule move. When she fights the clone, she attacks herself because she faces her own very moves. She runs away and gets pinned by herself against the wall. She is pushed further, which gets her clone to push into her even harder. Annihilation is a metaphoric take on the bodies that suffer against their will through disease, but it is also about those that suffer mentally. The abstract ending is a visual take on the depressed, the self-scorned and the anxious; every which way you move is wrong.
Of course, to get to this rewarding out-of-body experience of an ending, we slowly have to get there. In the more conventional parts, we see that Kane, Lena’s husband, is not all there. We then discover that he may have gone insane when video evidence of him disembowelling another soldier gets found. By the end, we realize that this, too, is a clone copy created by the Shimmer. The Shimmer ingests all that goes in: physical beings, objects, and even time (a chunk of the film is spent on characters trying to retrace their steps). It also swallows sanity whole. Anya (played by Gina Rodriguez) catches Lena lying about her connections to the mission, so she digs the rabbit hole she ventured down even deeper by making her own conclusions. She ties up her team members and threatens to torture them. This leads to one of the first weird moments of the film: the decomposing bear. The bear projects the screams of the departed Shephard (Tuva Novotny), and it is the first entrance into the abnormal (whilst being truly terrifying). The Shimmer feeds off of the internal energies of those within it. Anya was demolishing her own sanity, and the Shimmer continued to do her job. It noticed that Josie (Tessa Thomson) wanted to find inner peace and be one with her surroundings, so it turned her into a plant being. Dr. Ventress wanted to find the source, and she becomes one with the source. Lena wanted to destroy what she caused: the sabotage of her marriage. She succeeds, in a way.
To wrap up this discussion, we need to look into the final piece of the mind scrambling puzzle. Lena holds the copy of Kane, of whom is openly aware that he is not the Kane she once loved. Her irises shimmer before the credits roll. Is Lena permanently changed? Is this even Lena at all? This is a brilliant tribute to those that loved Garland’s previous film Ex Machina. Ex Machina details an elaborate Turing test through an android that tries to pass off as a human. (I won’t spoil that one for those that have ventured this far and have seen Annihilation but not that film). With Ex Machina, the world is unaware of what is going on, but we are in the know. It is dramatic irony. With Annihilation, the Turing test succeeds, because we were never in on it. We fully do not know if Lena is real, or if we were told a story by a being from the Shimmer that wants you to believe that it is truly fully gone now.
Annihilation is a special science fiction film that dances with its audience. Many may not like its manipulation, nor will they understand it. However, I hope this piece has served the film well, especially for those that did enjoy the picture. Whether you see Annihilation as a masterpiece or not, it is hard to deny its extreme differences from conventional blockbusters in the same genre. Annihilation is risky, and its every essence may affect science fiction pictures to come.