There is something to be said about Alex Garland and how intuitive of a filmmaker he can be.
Where he gestated his style, banging out intense and well-crafted scripts for other directors as a screenwriter for movies like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and the aptly, deliciously violent Dredd, he finally put on his directorial wings and gave us the mesmeric indie thriller Ex Machina—foretelling our weird, creepy, co-dependent relationship with AI robots and introducing the talented Alicia Vikander to the world.
Now we have Annihilation, certainly a bigger endeavor with an A-list star as its lead in Natalie Portman and a greater canvass for world-building that requires a commensurate grasp if he is to execute the vision of the book by Jeff Vandermeer, which he adapted the story from.
“The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.”
That’s a passage from the book where the protagonist describes The Shimmer, the phenomenon that has engulfed a patch of Florida coastland, sparsely populated, a rural area with a forest and marshes, and somehow “transformed” the landscape and its animals.
Garland translates the book’s prosaic, expansive language into the same visual vocabulary, making the journey as much an internal one as it is a mission to explore and map an expanse that has suddenly and irrevocably become alien.
The Shimmer is certainly an extraterrestrial phenomenon, the product of a fallen meteor, and it manifests in the form of a glistening, translucent, force field-like dome that is, as the military have observed, expanding with its rainbow hues and weird pulsing palette, like somebody made a fortification with thick, gooey bubbles as material.
When the film opens we learn that Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology professor teaching at a university. That her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaacs), is presumed dead, or at least missing for a year, from one of his covert missions since he is a Special Forces soldier who works black ops. Lena was also in the service, an Army grunt who did seven years.
Lena is in mourning. She declines an invite from a colleague since she needs to repaint the bedroom, “our bedroom,” as a form of grief therapy.
While she’s dazedly taking bush to wall, lo does the missing spouse appear! And in the same clothes he wore the day he left, too. Kane is strangely there, but not there. He’s got that thousand yard stare and when Lena demands an explanation, to tell her anything he might remember he falls short. Kane takes a sip of water. Then blood drops from his mouth into the remaining liquid. "I don't feel very well," he calmly says, then proceeds to cough up more blood.
En route to the hospital it isn’t long before the men in black, in black SUV trucks, stop their ambulance and both husband and wife wake up in a secure military facility. Confronted by a scowling and serious Dr. Ventress (an underutilized Jennifer Jason Leigh), Lena is taken through a crash course in the details of The Shimmer, officially known as Area X, and the shadowy organization that intends to plumb the depths of the alien phenomenon known as the Southern Reach.
It is at this point that the movie stops its keeling, info dump, awkward setup phase and finally puts on its adventuring boots.
See, previous expeditions into The Shimmer have all ended in failure. Zero data. Nothing comes back. "A religious event, an extraterrestrial event, a new dimension," declares Dr. Ventress, both concerned and intrigued. "We have many theories, few facts."
Will Lena join this mission to try to understand Area X and why earlier expeditions failed so profoundly? Perhaps, in the course of it, find out what happened to her now dying husband, in the grip of multiple organ failure. And, as a bonus, possibly save the world from being engulfed in The Shimmer, whose growth is daily and steady. The cellular biologist in her is intrigued, the soldier-patriot flamed with a sense of zeal, and the wife feels an overwhelming guilt and craving for the “what” and the “how” of what’s in Area X. So, hell yeah Lena is in!
It is also established early on that Lena has also come out, just like Kane, as we fast forward to a time when the good doctor is being questioned by Lomax (Benedict Wong), a guy in a Hazmat suit, and rewind to mission time, inside The Shimmer.
This time the expeditionary squad are all women. Aside from Dr. Ventress and Lena, three others round up the team: paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny).
It’s like John Carpenter’s The Thing, dashed with some David Lynch, and garnished with Denis Villeneuve. None of the rules of terra firma apply once the five women step into The Shimmer. They also quickly find out that none of their navigational tech work, and even their senses can’t entirely be trusted: the first time they wake up they’ve already pitched camp and, from the looks of it, been inside the phenomenon for a few days without remembering any of it.
There is also a strong suggestion that, now with Kane’s return, whatever happens in Area X appears to change people in a mental and physiological way.
Certainly the landscape, as they get deeper, is at once savage and beautiful. The floral growths alone defy everything that Lena has learned about the way life and cells work. There are plants that have multiple flowering species on them, fungal growths cover the trees in neon splashes of fuschia, viridian, and flaxen, and the animals also seem to suffer from some mutations deep in their DNA—once Lena spies a pair of albino deer with vines and blooms twined in their antlers.
And what is happening to the bodies and minds of the women as they traverse deeper into Area X? Behind its premise of the most subtle of alien invasions is a question of how exactly a change of DNA even for the better, in spite of our superheroes and mutant heroes, is still a suppurating thorn in reality.
While the story is that rare combination of both grand and personal, there is little by way of character development of the other three women in the squad. Though Tessa Thompson tries her best to be the cowardly, fecund one and Gina Rodriguez makes an effort to embrace the role of brazen soldier, there is precious little screen time devoted to them to work much.
Also, Portman’s execution of the performance seems determined to make audiences not care for her, especially as more about what she was up to while Kane was away is reveales. There’s not much by way of sympathy we can give her and it doesn’t help that she never has a sense of humor about the weirdness of it all.
Some of the best lines belong to Leigh’s Dr. Ventress and the hidden wisdom to whatever the fuck is happening to the women’s bodies (itself a commentary and a view of gender). One of the more lucid lines is: "Almost none of us commit suicide. Almost all of us self-destruct."
At its heart, Annihilation is much like its source material: deeply meditative, a story that is a shamanic and punctuated by moments of feral violence bordering on gratuitous, and a narrative that you can lose yourself in because it has space enough for you to breathe. You are free to embrace it the way you want to.
Despite it being all that, or likely because of all those qualities, this is the kind of science fiction movie that isn’t for everyone and will likely have problems with how cerebral it is, how it doesn’t give you enough clues to go on.
Viewers less steeped in genre conventions will balk at the conceit and ambition of the storytelling. Lena may be badass with an Armalite but can’t she be sexier? Can she smile more? How come we can’t find out about the physicist’s back story? Is this just another female Ghostbusters except they’re up against aliens? And not even Xenomorph aliens?
Producer David Ellison certainly thought so and voiced concerns that Garland’s cut was “too intellectual,” “too complicated,” and Portman’s character too unlikable. So he argued for a new edit. It’s a good thing that Alex Garland had final cut rights and retained the final vision, in all its trippy, prickly, phantasmagoric, complex emotiveness.
“I understood why no one lived in Area X now,” reads the book about the desolation of The Shimmer. “That it was pristine because of that reason, but I kept un-remembering it. I had decided instead to make believe that it was simply a protected wildlife refuge, and we were hikers who happened to be scientists.”
The story of Lena and the four women who braved Area x invites and beckons like a mystery.
“Annihilation” is available on Netflix on March 12.