A meteorite streaks past the camera. It carries some kind of alien mineral, and it ain’t Vibranium. It smashes into a lighthouse: the invasion of planet Earth has begun.
Ground Zero is covered by an iridescent dome – like a soap bubble, or a gigantic blister. They call it ‘the Shimmer’. Inside, communications fail, and those who enter don’t return. The government are keeping it top secret, but not for long; the phenomenon is expanding, and will eventually swallow up whole cities and states…
‘Annihilation’ started life as the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s ‘weird fiction’ Southern Reach trilogy, where a nameless four-woman crew venture into the unknown Area X. (A fifth turns back.) One, a perpetual student and passionate observer of tide pools known only as “the biologist”, served as narrator.
In Alex (Ex Machina) Garland’s dreamlike adaptation, the biologist – now Lena – is played by a characteristically poised, brittle Natalie Portman as an ex-military John Hopkins professor. Flashbacks reveal a soldier-scientist cheating on her angelic-looking husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) with Daniel (Interstellar’s David Gyasi).
We see Lena Portmansplaining cellular senescence, AKA aging, to Kane, who is active military. The couple playfully argue over whether God can make mistakes, and discuss the unprecedented ‘silence’ around Kane’s imminent deployment. Kane – with big puppy dog eyes – tenderly says they will be under the same stars, but Lena mocks the idea of pining for her absent husband.
Brokenhearted Kane goes MIA – then materializes a year later at their home, clearly unwell. En route to hospital the couple are ambushed by an armed unit and held in a facility where Lena meets creepy wierdo Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who explains that Kane volunteered for and escaped the Shimmer, but is now in multi-organ failure.
Guilt-racked over Oscar Isaac on a ventilator, Lena joins Ventress on the next Shimmer trip, although she keeps her motives secret from the rest of the team, who are all damaged in different ways: an unkempt Tessa Thompson is self-harming physicist Josie, boisterous paramedic Gina Rodriguez is recovering addict Anya, Tuva Novotny’s geologist Cass is a grieving mother. “We’re all damaged goods here,” she explains.
Inside the Shimmer, radio waves are scrambled, time is distorted, and flora and fauna bloom unnaturally. Flowers twist into the human form, deer have dainty tree branches instead of antlers, while alligators with shark teeth stalk the scientists.
“The Shimmer is a prism, but it refracts everything,” realizes Josie. Everything including plant and animal DNA – it all get reshuffled and recombined. After Cass is killed by a mutant bear, its jaws open and her voice screams for help. Josie doesn’t want terror to be her final surviving fragment; shoots and buds are already pushing out of her self-harm scars, and she walks peacefully into the flower mannequin forest.
For most, the thought of being broken down and incorporated into this new ecosystem would be grotesque. Ventress rages that it feels like the onset of dementia. Lena realizes that Ventress was already dying and is resigned to her fate, as long as she can face the alien entity on her own terms.
So is Annihilation about how we accept the inevitable? Some viewers saw it as a movie about cancer, or interpreted the Shimmer as a manifestation of Lena’s guilt. To others it’s really a searing depiction of depression, or all about Pokémon. Garland, meanwhile, said he was actually going for something on a theme of self destructiveness.
OK, but this stupid thing invaded us. And although Lena believes the organism doesn’t ‘want’ anything, it’s hard not to take it personally; there’s something about the fruiting corpse in the swimming pool and the artfully arranged skeletons that feel like they sprung from the imagination of a serial killer on NBC’s late, lamented Hannibal.
Despite the triumph of Ex Machina, Paramount had little faith in Annihilation; international rights went to Netflix. American audiences – who had the benefit of experiencing this admittedly visually and aurally accomplished movie on a cinema screen – only gave it a ‘C’ CinemaScore.
Maybe it’s because of the incoherent narrative. Some claim to enjoy the fact that it “doesn’t give us all the answers”. Others might point to the umpteen articles ‘unpacking’ the movie as a sign that it falls back on making audiences feel stupid for finding it all a bit of a muddle.