Annihilation – A Visual Feast, An Intellectual Nightmare (Film Review)

Reviewed by: Josh Pederson

Annihilation is one of those rare films that gracefully treads the line between beautiful and terrifying. It’s a visual feast and an intellectual nightmare. Whenever you think you have the plot figured out, all of your theories get disassembled in horrible, yet, elegant scenes that make you realize you’re far more invested in the characters than you originally thought. Their struggle to survive becomes your struggle to figure out what’s happening and why. By the time the film ends, you’re either painfully or wondrously aware of what director Alex Garland is trying to do, while at the same time wondering if he was even aware of it.

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Based on the novel of the same name by author Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation tells the story of a woman named Lena (Natalie Portman), a former soldier turned cellular biologist, who in an attempt to save her husband, journeys into a mass of land covered in a shimmering bubble-like substance. Nobody knows what’s inside this mass of land because nobody who has gone in to investigate has ever returned, until Lena’s husband, Sergeant Kane (Oscar Isaac) who was assumed to be dead, randomly shows up on Lena’s doorstep after entering the Shimmer with his team over a year ago. As you can guess Lena had some questions for him, and as a confused Kane tries to recall how he arrived and what happened, he begins hemorrhaging and is rushed to the hospital. The only problem is, on the way to the hospital, they’re intercepted by members of a government organization called the Southern Reach.

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After waking up in a strange compound, Lena meets a woman named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who tells her about what happened to her husband, informing her that he’s the only survivor of an expedition into “Area X,” or the Shimmer. In the beginning of the film, you get to see how the Shimmer came to be as a meteor races across the cosmos, and enters earth’s atmosphere before colliding with a lighthouse on the coast of a National Park somewhere in the United States. As you can probably guess, the Southern Reach wants to know what’s inside the Shimmer and why it’s spreading. The trouble with that, however, is that every team they’ve sent inside has gone missing, which leads to two theories: either something in the Shimmer is killing them, or once in the Shimmer, they’re going crazy and killing each other. You’ll find out later on in the movie that it’s a mixture of both.

Feeling guilty about the affair she’d been having while her husband was gone, Lena feels like it’s her responsibility to go into the Shimmer and find out what happened to her husband, and how to fix him. Together with four other women, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), a physicist, Cass Shepherd (Tuva Novotny), an anthropologist, Anya Thorenson (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic, and Dr. Ventress, they journey into the Shimmer as the Twelfth Expedition Team. Each member of this team, however, has baggage and secrets they’re keeping from each other and have to face the monsters inside the Shimmer as well as themselves. But what’s creating the monsters inside the Shimmer? And how does it affect humans? This is what Lena wants to know because she hopes the answer will unlock the key to saving her husband and possibly the world.

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While usually, I love to go more in depth with the story, this is one of those movies that can’t be explained past a certain point without spoiling it. Everything from the part when they enter the Shimmer to the very end of the film is a mystery that’s not just visually and mentally intriguing, it’s also a mystery I’m still trying process. When the film ended and the credits rolled, I couldn’t figure what happened. Who is alive and who isn’t? Who’s real and who is something else? I don’t think anybody in the theater knew. I’ve been thinking about it non-stop since seeing it a day ago, and I still can’t put the pieces together. So what does this mean? We all know that Alex Garland is a very intellectual filmmaker. You could see the thought that went into his last film Ex-Machina, and you can see the thought that went into this one, but it leaves one major question hanging in the air: Did he even understand what happened in the end? Is it meant to be understood? Or perhaps this was one of those strange juxtaposition films that examines what it is that makes us who we are and how we came to be. Like I said before, everybody is going to think something different about this film. That being said, be careful, because this is one of those rare cinematic art pieces that could actually cause you to think yourself into oblivion.

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Take what you will from the movie, but one theme that did echo throughout all three acts was the idea that in order for something new to be created, something must be destroyed. This has been a prevalent theme in many science-fiction movies over the years, but never have I seen it done so well and with such visual clarity. The creatures in the Shimmer all seem to share the same DNA, and as they consume other living creatures, they absorb their traits, sort of like the characters in K.A. Applegate’s 1996 young-adult book series Animorphs. Except in this case, the absorption of DNA isn’t specific to living creatures, everything is absorbing everything else, using old life to create something new. Yes, the theme might be played out in some cases, but there truly is nothing more destructive than creation.

THE GOOD

Much like in his last film Ex-Machina, Alex Garland does a great job of using sound and setting to create tension. There are no cheap scares or cheap thrills in this film. Every scene from start to finish is well planned out and flawlessly executed. The acting is far from perfect, but neither is it noticeably bad. The ladies in the film do a great job keeping you interested and making you sympathize with their struggle when they start to lose their minds. There’s also a deep reverence for nature that seems to wind its way through the film’s script. And it doesn’t do it in a preachy or political way, it serves more as a reminder that there is beauty in nature and new life, but there’s also great danger. Humanity might feel for the planet and go to extreme efforts to save it, but that doesn’t mean that the earth will reward your struggle or will rewrite its laws to consider individual creatures. In the end, you’re just one more living thing in a place full of living things, whether man, animal, or plant.

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The filmmaking from a technical standpoint was breath-taking. Rob Hardy returns to the camera for his second outing with director Alex Garland, and brings with him that unique style that uses bright colors as contrast in dark scenes. Every time the camera moves it serves a purpose. Every shot is meant to tell the audience something. Hardy, who is known to prefer shooting things on film instead of digital, once again utilizes the Sony CineAlta F65 and Sony CineAlta PMW-F55 with G and T Series Lenses, which explains why the visuals in this film look much like the ones from Ex-Machina, which happened to look amazing. As for the editing Barney Pilling, who has quite the resume under his belt with films like An Education, Never Let Me Go, One Day, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and others works his magic with moving cuts and unique transitions that utilize the film’s rare color pallet and lighting effects. And Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury are deserving of mention, as well, for using music and sounds to create tension. In most films, acoustic guitars are used for campy scenes, but the ones used in this were haunting.

THE BAD

As for the bad, I feel conflicted even putting anything here, because the things that I disliked might have been done on purpose. In which case, I’m okay with that. However, as far as character development goes, there are a few issues I had, and yes, I know it’s difficult to fully develop such complex ideas in the span of 115 minutes, but there’s a balance that felt slightly unbalanced. For example, the time jumps make it difficult to sympathize with or understand Lena’s affair. Does she love her husband? All we really know, thanks to certain scenes in the film, is that they had a lot of sex. Why do we know this? Because every scene with Lena and Kane, with the exception of one took place in their bed. Yes, she mourned her husband’s loss, but we all mourn loss and seldom appreciate those people until they’re gone. And according to Lena’s often confusing thought process, the only reason her husband went on this suicide mission in the first place was because he found out about Lena’s affair. Yet, there’s nothing in the film to indicate this realization took place.

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Then there’s the expedition team. Anya, for example, lost her mind, but the transition from sanity to insanity was so fast and incomprehensible that you almost wondered if that’s what somebody would have actually done in that position. Then there’s Josie, who struggled with cutting herself. When the bear/wolf thing attacks them in the house, she certainly doesn’t seem like she wants to die. So why would she, the next day, all of the sudden decide that she wants to become a tree? And then there’s Dr. Ventress . . . to be honest, I didn’t really care about her at all. Maybe this was because too soon in the film, they gave away the fact that she had cancer and wasn’t even planning on coming back. While everybody loves the idea of a character with nothing to lose, her condition had an aura of mystery that could have been better utilized.

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THE VERDICT

Annihilation is the most beautiful film that I’ve never understood. I haven’t been that mesmerized by a science-fiction film since I saw Aliens in the fifth grade. Annihilation takes the premise of Ivan Reitman’s 2001 film Evolution, mixes it with the terror and awe of Ridley Scott’s 2017 film Alien: Covenant and then hits you with the psychological gut punch of David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club. My favorite thing about this movie is also the thing about it that I despise the most . . . I still don’t get it. I’ve gone back and forth to each side of the conspiracy spectrum, trying to figure out what those final scenes meant, and while I didn’t remove my eyes from the screen once, I still feel like I’m missing something. However, in the frustration of trying to figure it all out, I’m not at all unhappy that I watched the film. In fact, I feel good knowing what it is and that it exists. It might even be enough to drive me to pick up the other two books in the series. It did a great job creating physical and psychological terror without becoming obnoxiously political like 2016s Arrival. I don’t know if this is something that I would recommend to the casual film enthusiast, but to the intellectual, I would love to know how you interpret it. In any case, Alex Garland has done it again, he’s created something that people are going to be talking about for years to come.

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