Written and Directed by: Alex Garland
I didn’t know much about Annihilation when I went to see it. I knew it was based on a book by acclaimed science fiction writer Jeff VanderMeer, whose work I do not know well. I knew it was a science fiction piece and seen as a somewhat important release. I’d also heard it had received mixed reviews. As far as biases go, I was prepared to either like or be disappointed with the film. That’s the right mindset to have as a reviewer.
Quickly, and unsurprisingly, the film struck me as having dystopian qualities. We meet Lena (Natalie Portman), disoriented and under investigation. She is not in trouble per se, but she is in a dreary space. We next discover her profession: she is a biology teacher, a professor apparently, who speaks of cell development in a quasi poetic fashion.
At this point in the film, I was not impressed. I parsed that the film was accessible, yet relatively generic science fiction. The film’s character slowly began to change, however. Firstly, with the introduction of Lena’s brooding husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), and subsequently, as Lena finds herself on a seemingly hopeless expedition: to enter “the shimmer.”
As it transitions from its dark beginning to its defining middle and conclusion, Annihilation adopts several identities. One of its identities is as a film that responds to current demands for better representation in cinema. On her journey into the shimmer, Lena is accompanied by four other women, two of whom are women of color. In the scene in which this group is introduced, the fact that they are all women is plainly stated. A throwaway reference to one of them, a paramedic named Anya (Gina Rodriguez), being lesbian is also included. The scene raises interesting questions about what representation means. Annihilation , is not the Ghostbusters remake; it exists for reasons other than simply making representation happen. Nonetheless, the filmmakers clearly didn’t want this representation to go unnoticed, and as such announces its presence to the audience. In order for us to transition from an age of white male dominated cinema to an age of more inclusiveness, is it necessary for films to announce what they are doing, or is subtlety the best path? I don’t think I can answer that question in one sentence if at all. Annihilation, plays an interesting role in this discussion, however, in that its political moment is brief, making it more of a post-modern interruption than a dominant character train of the film. From that scene on, any further commentary the film makes on gender is done subtly. One interesting feature in the film is that Lena’s interrogation (which chronologically takes place after the main events of the movie) is conducted by a male led team, whereas when she arrives the film’s central research facility is female dominated. While this detail is never directly commented on, it is at very least, provocactive. Does it suggest that even when a marginalized demographic briefly experiences power, that a slight mishap can take it away again?
Another of Annihilation’s identities is as a Wizard of Oz like story: one that transitions from color to darkness. While there is no munchkinland in the shimmer, it has more in common with Oz than meets the eye (and the colourful appearance it shares with Oz certainly meets the eyes). Both Oz and the Shimmer are world’s the protagonist enter almost with the preset goal of escaping. Secondly, both worlds are escapes themselves: albeit Oz is supposed to be a Utopian one, where as the shimmer is an escape resemblant of self harm (a comparison made explicitly in the film).
Once in the shimmer, the film truly comes to life. One of Annihilation’s unique characteristics is that its “brilliant scientist” protagonist, is not a physicist/inventor, but a biologist. The first time we see Lena’s genius is thus when she looks at a selection of flowers, and observes the oddity of them growing on the same stem. This moment may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it in fact speaks to the larger character of the film. The flowers show what is “wrong” with the shimmer, and yet they are beautiful. We see this contradiction again as the protagonists study the fascinating teeth of an enormous crocodile that tried to kill them or marvel at beautiful plant structures that may very well be human corpses.
Once Annihilation’s scenery grows colourful, its characters do as well. When we first meet Lena’s travelling game, we are left to wonder how many of them we will actually remember when the film closes. They seem indistinghuishable: one character multiplied to be 3 so that there are more bodies to scream and hold guns. Annihilation, ultimately does differentiate its characters, howeverm particularly Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist who cannot mentally help herself. While in one case this character development follows a dramatic trajectory, for the most part these characters are developed at an appropriately realistic pace, making them not just memorable, but effective.
As it reaches its dramatic conclusion, Annihilation continues to become more dramatic, and replete with wonderful beauty. Another of its strong traits is that it regularly cuts to scenes of Lena’s life either in the past or in the future/present (where she is being interrogated). Most these time jumps is used to make a dramatic revelation about Lena’s story. While some may view this as cheating (ie not depicting the drama directly on camera) I see it as a fascinating narrative device: it gives the twists more weight in that we don’t see them played out, but rapper have them dropped upon us like an ice cube.
Annihilation’s merits as science fiction are questionable. There are a number of phenomenon in the film that go unexplained by the film’s brief address of its underlying scientific mechanisms. Nonetheless, if viewers do not look for ways to tear the film apart, they should not be disappointed in this colourful, heartfelt, dystopian drama.