A meteorite streaks past the camera. It carries an 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 called the Shimmer, which looks like a soap bubble, or a gigantic blister. Those who enter don’t return.
It’s top secret, but the phenomenon is expanding, threatening to swallow up whole cities and states…
Annihilation started life as the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach book trilogy, where a nameless four-woman crew venture into the mysterious Area X. One, a perpetual student and passionate observer of tide pools known only as “the biologist”, served as narrator.
In Alex ‘Ex Machina’ Garland’s adaptation, the biologist – now named Lena – is played by a characteristically poised Natalie Portman as an ex-military John Hopkins professor. Flashbacks reveal her cheating on her angelic-looking soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) with Daniel (Interstellar’s David Gyasi).
We see Lena Portmansplaining cellular senescence – AKA aging – to Kane, playfully arguing whether God makes mistakes. As they discuss the odd silence around Kane’s deployment, he tenderly says they’ll be under the same stars, but Lena mocks the idea of pining for her husband. He goes MIA, before mysteriously returning, clinging to life.
Learning Oscar Isaac escaped the Shimmer, a guilt-wracked Lena leaves him on a ventilator to join Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for the next mission. The rest of their team are all damaged goods: Tessa Thompson is self-harming physicist Josie, Gina Rodriguez is addict Anya, Tuva Novotny’s geologist Cass is a grieving mother.
Inside, time is distorted. Josie theorizes that the Shimmer is a prism that refracts everything. DNA is reshuffled so that flowers twist into human shapes, deer have twig antlers, alligators grow shark teeth. Cass dies in the jaws of a mutant bear who later bellows with its victim’s voice.
Faced with the grotesque fate of being broken down into this new ecosystem, an already cancer-stricken Ventress rages that it feels like dementia. Josie refuses to let terror be her surviving fragment. She walks peacefully into the flower mannequin forest, buds sprouting from her self-harm scars.
Is Annihilation, therefore, about how we choose to accept the inevitable? While some thought it was about cancer, or interpreted the Shimmer as a manifestation of Lena’s guilt (to others it was about depression, or Pokémon), Garland himself said he was going for something on a theme of self destructiveness.
OK, but this stupid thing invaded us. 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, or the artfully arranged skeletons, that feel like they sprung from the imagination of a serial killer on NBC’s late, lamented Hannibal.
Following the trend for virtue signaling when sub-par movies debut on streaming platforms, there was outcry when international rights went to Netflix. Yet US theatre-goers only graded it a C CinemaScore. Fans try to ‘unpack’ the movie, lauding the way it ‘doesn’t give us all the answers’, rather than admit it loses its way as it nears the epicentre.