Alex Garland’s second feature as director, Annihilation (2018), follows on from the promise of Ex-Machina (2014) as he delivers a wondrously crafted and thought-provoking thriller that examines grief, existentialism and the human penchant for self-destruction with stunning visual flare. Like his script for Sunshine (2007), Garland takes genre conventions and narrative rhetoric we are familiar with and distorts that comfort of familiarity to mess with the minds of both the audience and the characters at every turn.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a cellular biology professor and former soldier who ventures into a mysterious supernatural zone referred to as “The Shimmer” from which only her presumed to be dead, and now extremely ill, husband has ever returned. She is joined by a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), and a geomorphologist (Tuva Novotny) in a voluntary expedition into The Shimmer in an attempt to uncover its secret, comprehend its nature and find out what became of the numerous excursions that preceded them.
Once they have entered The Shimmer, we are subjected to a dream logic that defies the science and assurances that we and the characters live by, as they realise four days have passed that they cannot account for. The fundamentals we rely on to ground ourselves in reality such as nature or time are constantly in question. At the start of the film, a co-worker tells a grief and guilt-stricken Lena, “All work and no play…it’s not healthy”. In playing on a hackneyed phrase, and our expectations of structure by extension, Garland subtly foreshadows the strange and unpredictable world of the film.
Another unsettling factor stems from the fact that our core characters volunteer to join an operation frequently referred to as a suicide mission, which says more about their damaged, self-destructive personalities than the futile search for answers and the tenuous strength of what we can rationalise. Each member of the expedition is irrevocably damaged in some way. Lena’s quest is driven by a conflict between science and emotion as the grief and emotional torment of losing her husband dictates the search for a rational explanation of what is ultimately inexplicable. The film shows that those unwilling to accept contradictions to facts they hold true will begin to unravel in dangerous ways.
Rob Hardy’s cinematography highlights the omnipresence of The Shimmer in shots of domestic or militaristic settings being punctuated by shimmers of light or lens flares that feel otherworldly. Certain shots also foreshadow the distortions of logic and biology, such as a seemingly innocuous shot of a glass of water where our attention is drawn to the distorted effect the water has on Lena’s hand behind the glass. It’s also worth noting the disorientating effects of vignette blurring and playing with focus as The Shimmer begins to permeate the worldview of our protagonists.
Annihilation is certainly worth multiple viewings and stands as a hugely rewarding experience for fans of gothic/body horror, sci-fi or emotionally motivated cinematic storytelling. Science can only explain so much, especially when we are ultimately driven by psychological or emotional impulses manifesting in ways that transcend what facts alone can dictate…