Directed by Alex Garland.
Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny and Oscar Isaac.
A group of scientists are sent into a quarantined area to investigate a mysterious force dubbed “The Shimmer” that is mutating all living things within its confines.
Alex Garland is, in my view, one of the most original and creative people working in any medium today. With works like Ex Machina and more recently his TV miniseries Devs (both of which I highly recommend, Garland has proven himself able to tackle complex ideas without talking down to the viewer while still being able to deliver engaging and exciting work. Annihilation, while not an original creation (being adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel), has Garland again tackling weighty concepts such as molecular biology, extra-terrestrial life, grief and human self-destruction, while still delivering a terrifying cosmic horror experience.
The story of Annihilation is one that takes its time. Its dream-like atmosphere and languid pacing, sucking you into a world increasingly twisted by “The Shimmer”, a mysterious force whose reach is growing day by day.. While this plot is one that could have been lifted from a disaster film, the apocalyptic overtones are relegated to the background, with the story being much more introspective, focusing on ideas such as humanity and a woman’s struggles to deal with the disappearance of her husband.
Natalie Portman leads the film as Lena, a scientist who finds herself venturing into “The Shimmer” to uncover the truth of what happened to her husband. Portman is excellent in the role, playing the role with restraint and poise that portrays her grief with subtlety. The supporting cast is also excellent, with Gina Rodriguez standing out in particular as Anya, a character whose friendly good-humoured attitude soon gives way to manic paranoia that makes her a dangerous threat to her fellow travellers.
On a visual level, Annihilation is a deep well of surreal imagery, frightening unknowns and haunting beauty as “The Shimmer” works its magic upon the plant and animal life trapped within its confines, with animals such as alligators and bears being twisted and mutated into nightmarish monstrosities. A bear creature, in particular, is a ghoulish creation. It’s familiar shape deformed and reconstructed into a long-faced beast that, despite its size, is somehow able to creep up silently behind unsuspecting victims and, perhaps most terrifying of all, able to mimic a human voice crying for help. Not all sights created by “The Shimmer” are quite so horrifying. The image of plants growing into the shapes of people, as if they are plant-based shadows, is simultaneously eerie and yet strangely beautiful.
However, none of the film’s visual flourishes can prepare you for sheer mind fuckery of the finale, in which the source of “The Shimmer” is revealed in a manner that can only be explained after consuming a lot of psychedelic drugs. It’s a beautiful, confusing, horrifying and perplexing series of colours, shapes, hypnotic electronic music and the emergence of an alien creature that responds to a barrage of bullets with yet more psychedelia.
The horror elements of Annihilation are much more subtle than your typical horror film, with perhaps the most notable thing the film is just how quiet it is, creating an uncomfortable atmosphere in which paranoia reigns. While the effects of “The Shimmer” on animal and plant life lead to many strange outcomes, the way it affects the human body is frightening. One memorable and nauseating example comes when a man’s intestines seemingly turn into a sentient creature slithering around inside his body. This same man is later found dead, his twisted body now a gruesome distorted monument seared into the wall of a disused swimming pool.
As to the nature of the alien responsible for “The Shimmer“, personified by a mysterious humanoid creature (played by Garland regular Sonoya Mizuno) it is never fully explained. Portman might be forced to confront it alone as it mimics her movements like a sentient mirror while also preventing her attempts to flee, yet its never clear if it means to harm her or become her. We never really know if “The Shimmer” was intended by its alien creators to wipe out humanity or if it was only intended to transform it. Or as Portman says ‘It wasn’t destroying. It was changing’. These mysteries keep you guessing, and while not every question is answered, there is more than enough to keep you coming back.
While the novel upon which the film is based was followed by two sequels (titled Authority and Acceptance) following some of the same characters, Annihilation already works brilliantly as a one-off story whose lingering mysteries warrants re-watches more than it does sequels. I would much rather spend the rest of my days pondering what the answers could be rather than having them given disappointing answers.
Annihilation is haunting, nightmarish, beautiful film that will leave viewers engrossed and pondering its many questions long after the credits roll, cementing Alex Garland as one of the most original talents working in any medium today. I’ve barely scratched the surface with this one, so please check it one out.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★