Directed By: Alex Garland
Written By: Alex Garland (based on the novel Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer)
Starring: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez
What comes next after pulling apart the distinctions between human sentience and A.I sentience? Surely pulling apart the distinctions between human beings, nature, time, and the universe as we know it.
Alex Garland’s 2014 directorial debut Ex Machina, by means as exhilaratingly visceral as they were intellectual (as is the penchant of the best science fiction cinema), honed in on sexuality and ego to brilliantly collapse the emotional boundaries delineating humans from their artificial counterparts. Not one to take a backwards step, for his next existential musing (Annihilation) Mr Garland has dropped us in the sort of trippy milieu that sci-fi lives for—“the shimmer” as it’s known in this particular instance— an ever-expanding alien ecosystem growing out of the U.S’ Southern coast which many have entered in the vain hope of unlocking its mysteries, but from which only a single soul has ever returned.
Oscar Isaac is that soul, a military man named Kane who arrives back at home after a year of MIA to meet his weeping wife (biologist Lena who had assumed him dead, played by Natalie Portman) in the bedroom the two used to share—or has he? Something is evidently off. To any questions Lena logically asks, Kane can only respond “I don’t know”, words we’ll hear often throughout the film—a telling refrain for a film that so courageously refuses to place its viewer on steady ground.
There are very few certainties offered in Annihilation, but what we do know is that “the shimmer”, after Lena teams with four other women as part of a research expedition earmarked for the alien territory, is a sub-world populated with all manner of impossibly cross-bred flora and fauna. It’s an arena through which Mr Garland audaciously deconstructs the boundaries between humanity and nature, (like he did humans and androids previously) commenting along the way on man’s inextricable bond, and thus obligation to, his environment. That would be one reading at least. Perhaps what Alex Garland is actually commenting on is humankind’s propensity for self-destruction; or perhaps he’s commenting on the notion that evil is predicated on difference; or, more simply, on the randomness of the universe; I can’t say for sure, nor could anyone, which is tantamount to the film’s success.
Annihilation isn’t short on boldness then, tossing up as many questions as it does gut-wrenching thrills, and underlining it all with an ostentatious ambiguity. I can’t tell you a great deal about what happens in the film, partly of course because of spoilers, but chiefly because it’s just not possible. To borrow Winston Churchill’s description of Soviet Russia, Annihilation is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma— a film that is as compulsively watchable as it is intellectually evocative, taunting us with its incessantly cryptic demeanour as though it’s daring us to extract our own morality and meaning from the spectacular, immersive, macabre tableau it presents.
It’s difficult to banish thoughts of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, or, from more recent times, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! when viewing Annihilation, films which make similar use of ambiguity to both stimulate and herald a perverse funhouse effect— Garland’s enigmatic narrative is an exhibition in sustained unease; to watch Annihilation is to feel as though you have woken from a walking slumber inside a blackened house in which you’ve never been before.
It’s not all seamlessly executed. It’s one thing for a film to champion dread, it’s another to eschew humanity for portent. What troubles Annihilation is that it succumbs to its own severity and strains for profundity to enrapture us as fully as Lynch’s or Aronofsky’s best.It’s a portentousness which comes to plague the film’s characters as much as its narrative, the mutually damaged quintet of women who embark on the expedition (alongside Portman stands Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny) are each so brooding and joyless that they inevitably make for pretty miserable, and, more problematically, tiring company. These characters can’t help but pale in interest compared to their mission.
But what Annihilation lacks in humanity it more than caters for in intrigue— a stunning exercise in white-knuckle suspense, bolstered by Garland’s keen eye for arresting visuals; his alien world a catalogue of stunning vistas and Frankenstein-like creatures as malevolent as they are striking, all lensed by Ex Machina photographer Ron Hardy who amalgamates elegance with ghostliness.
And anchoring it all is that challenge which Garland so daringly insists upon, the director urging us to feel our way through his film’s ethos, to find our own way to our feet after he has whirled us away and hurled to the floor in the most unfamiliar of settings, as though he were some Kansan hurricane. Alex Garland doesn’t merely task us with finding the answers, he tasks us with finding the questions, allowing Annihilation to provide the one-two punch that streams through only the most ambitious and effective science fiction thrillers— socking the stomach whilst sparking the mind.