Owing to Netflix’s staggeringly bad synopsis, I put off watching this movie for some time. And oh my goodness, what a mistake that was! Adapted and directed by Alex Garland from the novel written by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation is a shimmering star in the quagmire of recent cliché-ridden sci-fi movies.
It begins with Lena Kerans (Natalie Portman), a cellular-biology professor struggling to rebuild her life after her military hubby went MIA twelve months earlier. When he mysteriously shows up at her door in a near-catatonic state and collapses, a squad of Special Ops soldiers kidnap the couple and take them to a secret military base. Whilst there, the cause of his illness is revealed to Lena: a dome of energy coined the ‘Shimmer’ has grown over a huge area, mutating the land. The cause of the Shimmer is unknown. It could be an act of god, an extraterrestrial event, the intersection of a higher dimension – no one knows! The scientists studying it don’t even know what the shimmer is made of and nothing that has gone into it has ever come out. Except for Kerans’ husband. After more than three years researching the Shimmer, the scientists at the base are no closer to figuring out what it is or how to get rid of it. All they know is that it is growing fast. In a matter of weeks, it will swallow their government facility and after that, it will devour the entire world and likely spell the end of life on earth as we know it. With time running out and her husband’s life hanging in the balance, Kerans volunteers to join the last expedition team and head into the Shimmer, in a final attempt to find answers that may save the world.
When the film starts, you’d be forgiven for thinking you know where it’s going to go. The beginning is filled with sci-fi tropes that are beyond irksome and that lead the viewer into thinking that it is, yet again, another movie about a hard-done-by character who is about face-off with the usual government lies and cover-ups. But with absolute relief and great joy, the content of minute 15 turns the genre on its head as Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the head scientist at the secret military base, quickly recognises Kerans’ expertise and invites her into the fold, revealing all she knows.
The triumphs of this story (which are numerous) come from its unconventional enemy: the shimmer. It provides both a physical and metaphorical landscape for the characters’ deeper stories of self-discovery and realisation to be told, and the mystery surrounding its origins, effects and intent tasks both the characters and viewers with figuring it out.
Of all the relationships in the film, it’s the one between Portman and Dr Ventress that proves most interesting and beautiful. A meeting of minds and of equals not often seen with female characters in film and even rarely done so well. No woman-on-woman hate here, thank you very much. And no pathetic status-grabbing games, jealousy, BFF nonsense or territorial battles. Just two women, being who they are and doing what they need to do. Side by side. Distinct and compellingly portrayed, Portman and Leigh both create equally vulnerable yet unashamed characters that are intriguing to watch.
And when it comes to the rest of the characters; the exceptional writing and directorial skills of Alex Garland really come to the fore. While badass lesbian paramedic-turned-soldier Anya Thorensen played by Gina Rodriguez of Jane the Virgin fame, is a little annoying at times, her journey is familiar without being overly cliched. Indeed, Thorensen provides a familiar base-level of human psychology – the expression of denial and then paranoia in the face of fear. Alongside Thorensen, Tessa Thompson (Avengers: Ragnarok, Westworld) stars as the self-harming and introverted Cambridge physics graduate Josie Radek. Together the characters create an effective dichotomy of personality and psychology.
Added to these two opposites the seemingly self-aware Cass Sheppard, portrayed by Tuva Novotny, brilliantly inhabits the middle ground between them. Thereby creating a background spectrum of human perspective against which Kerans must navigate. Indeed, as events unfold and Kerans struggles on what appears to be a journey of redemption and forgiveness, the real meaning of the movie is revealed by an exquisite line delivered by Dr Ventress:
“Almost none of us commit suicide. And almost all of us self-destruct…”
When it comes to the visuals, the talents and skills of the visual and special effects artists and technicians on this production are beyond inspiring and become more impressive as the film progresses.
Cinematographer Rob Hardy and production designer Mark Digby have created a detailed and nuanced world inside the Shimmer. The twisted set pieces are not designed for mere spectacle like those in your average sci-fi movie. Oh no! These are graceful, grotesque, beautiful and often seductive. Though some are horrifying to look at, the fear factor doesn’t come from their appearance, but rather from the philosophical and scientific intrigue they embody. Literally, a visual representation of the characters’ realisations and metamorphoses, the meanings and implications of this film’s visual artistry, are revealed slowly and become clear in the moments when the characters themselves reach clarity.
Annihilation is an intelligent and illuminating film, superbly made. It oozes genius from every facet – and will not soon be forgotten by anyone who watches it!