Alex Garland’s second feature as director Annihilation 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 Annihilation, 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 Annihilation.
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. Annihilation shows that those unwilling to accept contradictions to facts they hold true will begin to unravel in dangerous ways.