By Michael Kalafatis (Stoke on Trent)
Annihilation opens in a government facility located on a southern coast called Area X, Lena a professor in cellular biology and former U.S. army soldier undergoes a quarantined debrief about an expedition she undertook into “the shimmer”, an area where an alien meteorite has fallen an occurrence that baffles Dr Ventress, who is unable to properly describe it, “A religious event. An extraterrestrial event. A higher dimension. We have many theories. Few facts.” In the debriefing a scientist named Lomax asks Lena, “What did you eat? You had rations for two weeks. You were inside for nearly four months.”
Lena: “I don’t remember eating.”
Lomax: “How long did you think you were inside?”
Lena: “Days. Maybe weeks.”
From this opening conversation we instantly realise that we are about to experience a film saturated with mystery and suspense. From this point and onwards most of the the film’s narrative takes place in a flashback with Lena describing the expedition into “the shimmer” and their approach into its source.
Annihilation is the second feature film by Alex Garland, and it comes after his well received debut film Ex Machina. Annihilation starts with a meteor that hits a lighthouse located in the southern coast, the meteor has an extraterrestrial organism that gradually encompass everything around it, this organism gets called “the shimmer”. The plot follows an expedition led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist, with Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) a paramedic, Radek (Tessa Thompson) a physicist, Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) a surveyor and geologist, and lastly Lena (Natalie Portman) a biologist and former soldier.
Initially Lena was not part of the expedition but she volunteers because she wants to know what happened to her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), a soldier who was part of the last expedition.
Lena becomes our surrogates into the “the shimmer” and like us she has many questions and wants to know what happens once someone pass its threshold and why in three years since the arrival of the comet every expedition has failed to return. The plot of Annihilation is reminiscent of 1927 short story The Colour Out of Space written by influential horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, a story that is about a meteor that clashes west of Arkham and starts to poison every living organism with the vegetation growing abnormally large but have foul taste, animals deform into grotesque creatures and nearby inhabitants gradually starts mentally and psychically to disintegrate and eventually die. Similarly with Annihilation Lovecraft’s short story combines elements from science fiction and horror genre in equally effective way.
Garland’s Annihilation is similar with Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival(2016) both films have a female lead character, the arrival of extraterrestrial entity and a plot that is not concerned in showcasing mindless action like most films that involve extraterrestrial threat. These two films do not want to disconnected and numb its audience with actions scenes but they want its audience to actively participate into the plot and contemplate the questions that both films asks. Garland has created an intelligent science fiction film that draws influences from other science fictions films like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey, John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, but even though these influences are quite obvious they do not detract from Garland’s mesmerizing, harrowing and unique film that asks more questions than it answers, a trait that is recurring with the best science fiction e.g., the last part of Space Odyssey or if Deckard is a replica or not in Blade Runner.
Annihilation just like Garland previous film Ex Machina is a film that presents very difficult concepts that are a bit perplexing and that is the reason it rewards a second viewing to fully immerse and appreciate its world, as it has an abundance of details that are missed on the first viewing. Garland saturates his film with these tiny details from the opening moment in Area X till the explosive climax and require from us the audience to find the clues scattered all throughout the film to answer some lingering questions that we think the film leaves unanswered.
Verdict: Annihilation is a smart, harrowing and frightening film that conveys Alex Garland virtuosity in writing and directing hard science fiction films that have a unique and uncompromising vision, a thing that is currently lacking in Hollywood.