Trailers for this film immediately caught my eye, a psychedelic trip-fest of colours and sounds that screams “art and sci-fi are at it again”. It was a film I immediately knew I had to watch in the cinema to get the full experience, but even if I’d had the time to do so (life is hard, and full of stuff) I would never have got the chance. Annihilation saw theatrical release in America only and digital distribution via Netflix everywhere else.
We’ve been robbed of one hell of a spectacle, not just a visually stunning film but artistically rich. I have a rant on this that I’ll save for another time, for today let me get into Annihilation:
We follow the journey of an expeditionary force sent into an anomaly referred to as “The Shimmer” that formed around a lighthouse and grew to consume a large amount of the countryside around it; a wall of distorted light around a reformed wilderness filled with plants and creatures that are themselves not alien, but are no longer part of the natural order of things. If you’ve already seen the trailer above you might have spotted crocodiles with shark teeth, deer with plant-antlers (plantlers), and the skull-faced monster.
Our primary protagonist, Lena (Natalie Portman) has an ulterior motive that the military uses to bait her into the job, to find out what happened to her husband (Oscar Isaac), who vanished for a year and returned, strange, memories and emotions seemingly non-functional, before promptly collapsing into a coma. The rest of her team include a paramedic, a physicist, and a (had to go back for this one) geomorphologist. They enter to find that they have – very suddenly – been there for some time, memories of their travel eradicated, and only their consumption of rations to judge the amount of time that has elapsed.
We get our classic horror film standards, the environment is isolated from all communication, made ominous by a history of vanished expeditions, throw in a few jump-scares and a pair of particularly creepy main nemeses (namely the skull-bear and the final “thing”), combined with the distinctly haunting imagery. The monstrous juxtaposes against the beautiful, all the while retaining the disquieting and unnatural. You might have seen the images of the plants grown into the silhouettes of people, which are given a credible but no less unnerving explanation as the nature of the place becomes more apparent to the group.
I refuse to give some of the more spectacular and marvellously subtle visuals away here, but suffice is to say that overall theme is change. Genetics fuse and twist, sound distorts, light refracts, at times slowly, but there are moments of things moving and shifting before your eyes. The Shimmer becomes like a cancer, a relentless and destructive mutation.
And I Don’t Feel The Same
I’ve heard and read a few explanations for the deeper meaning behind Annihilation. Grief, emotional turmoil, and yes, cancer. All of them make sense.
A few reviewers before me have drawn links to Lovecraft’s “A Colour Out Of Space” in which a meteor strikes the Earth spreading a fungus that devours everything living for miles around before becoming an entity of light that moves among the stars. The meteor is there, the alien fungous growth is there, I get the link and I feel the original novel almost certainly has roots leading back to Lovecraft. The world-ending implications and the mutation themes for me are more strongly reminiscent of The Thing*, so an indirect link more likely.
But the film blends and distorts genre along with all of its other subjects. It’s so easy to label it sci-fi horror, but it lingers too long on the dramas of our lead character and her emotions, her grief and erratic decisions, leading one to wonder if the film’s purpose is to explore emotional upheaval and the chaos it brings into your life, and how time can seem to slow and warp, and leave you forever and irrevocably changed, not necessarily for the better. The most stone-faced character becomes the epicentre, Ventress, whose character arc concludes in darkness, but consumed by colour. What a beautiful image, and a sentence that spoils nothing, trust me.
And what of the themes of duplication, and reversal? Most prominent in the third act but coherent throughout. The same goes for the self-destruction, depression, and mental health images that are scattered throughout. This film compiles so much.
Cancer perhaps makes the most sense, as such a long-term and corruptive force can cause all of the above, depression, erratic behaviour, the mostly wordless third act perhaps representative of isolation, and in the end the distance of the people around you, and trying to reconnect with someone you love to find that you barely know one-another. Tumour discussion and imagery in the first act is reminiscent if not wholly directly representative of the entire third act.
… probably won’t happen.
There is a three-part book series of which Annihilation is the first book, and Paramount own the film rights to all three. But let’s be real, they already decided the film was too smart for anyone but American audiences… thanks for that Paramount, really glad you spared us that one. The rest of the trilogy is unlikely to see screens of any size, but it’s nice to know that if you enjoyed Annihilation there’s more to be had.
*Spoiler Tag for this footnote. If you want a stronger link to The Thing, watch the scene where one party member starts accusing everyone of lying to her as she starts to break down in the face of the horror around her. It couldn’t be a more perfect analogue to the petri-dish scene especially when you factor in the skull-bear’s ability to mimic sound.
And while you’re here and reading spoilers, there’s a moment when Portman first sees the Shimmer and you see the colour shift reflected in her eyes. Foreshadowing? Or by exposure to Dopplehusband is she already corrupted by it?