Review: Alex Garland's masterful ANNIHILATION plumbs the depths of our appetite for destruction
Florida makes a fitting setting for a science-fiction film: There’s something incredibly eerie about the state’s unique mixture of sun-bleached, eroded glitz and hardscrabble desperate living. We’re talking about a state known for its escapist fantasyland of a theme park—the same state where so many older Americans are drawn to live out their final years and ultimately die. The state that’s regularly in the news for explosive and bizarre acts of violence that border on unexplainable.
In short, the state knows the kind of bent toward self-destruction fledgling sci-fi auteur Alex Garland is intent on plumbing in ANNIHILATION. As with his previous film, EX MACHINA, Garland uses full-blown Lovecraftian sci-fi as an entry point into plumbing the depths of our darkest, least comprehensible human impulses. ANNIHILATION in particular examines the self-destructive coping mechanisms we turn in our darkest times to keep feeling (and staying) alive, using truly stomach-churning body horror and a twisty nonlinear narrative to heighten the duality between our rational selves and our minds in peril.
Garland’s ambitious and loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s book is parceled out slowly, alternating between flashbacks and flashforwards that only seem to lay out the film’s conclusion rather early on. In fact, we’re introduced to Johns Hopkins biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) after she’s already apparently survived her time in the Shimmer, a mysterious and rapidly expanding alien-created phenomena off the swampy coast of Florida many before her had entered but none have returned from—save for her army specialist husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac).
We soon learn that it’s Kane’s hallucinogenic return after a full year of radio silence that precipitates Lena’s own decision to enter the eerie opalescent alien void. Kane’s incredibly sudden reappearance at the door to the bedroom they once shared is unnerving even before he starts hemorrhaging from his nose and convulsing wildly in the back of an ambulance—the man who returns to their house wears a rather blank, distant expression and is seemingly unable to recall where he’s been, how long he’s been away, or even how he got back into their home. Even as they embrace, there’s a gaping void between them—but things weren’t always this way.
Portman’s and Isaac’s characters’ relationship before their world went all sci-fi is presented in unnerving fragmented flashbacks—through Lena’s point of view, it feels important to note—that initially suggest an idyllic union between two. The two actors have a very easy, very intense lived-in rapport with one another in these scenes that delve deep inside the sweet, tender, incredibly intimate moments of their relationship—set to the sounds of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s mournful “Helplessly Hoping,” no less—making Lena’s inconsolable grief about his being gone feel incredibly palpable and hard to bear.
But as more suppressed flashbacks begin to slowly reveal in rather jarring fashion, there’s a lot more to it than that. By the time Kane left on what can only be described as a suicide mission, the strain of two demanding careers—especially given the secrecy and frequent absences Kane’s line of work entails—had eroded and destabilized their once close connection. Through the filter of Lena’s subconscious, we learn about a brief affair she had with a colleague before (and after) Kane went away, an impulsive decision made during a lonely, low period that she feels no end of guilt over.
The film’s willingness to thoughtfully examine infidelity and the complicated nature of long-term romantic relationships with understanding and without moralizing reminded me a lot of last year’s underappreciated LANDLINE. Both films show the complicated set of circumstances that can lead to a breakdown in communication and then to an act of betrayal in even the longest and most stable-seeming of unions, plus the way the momentarily catharsis an affair generates gives way to crippling, lingering self-loathing, especially in women, who are taught to be the glue that holds things together. (More on that in a coming piece. Promise.)
“I owed him,” Lena says, as she makes her mind up to enter the Shimmer herself, knowing full well she likely won’t make it out alive (or at least intact). She’s joined by four other women drawn toward death: Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an aloof psychologist keeping a secret close to her chest; Josie Radek, a timid physicist (Tessa Thompson) with scars up and down her arms; Anya Thorensen, a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez) with addiction issues; and geologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), who is mourning the loss of her young child. We learn this all in a rather exposition-heavy scene that feels like a major weak point for the film’s script that otherwise seems content to trust the audience to make connections.
From the second the five enter the filmy dreamscape—set designer Mark Digby has done a fantastic job here—they’re disoriented and ill at ease. Nothing quite makes sense beneath the bubble’s oily sheen, from the way time works to the bizarre yet stunning plant life to the hybridized animals that dot the lush biosphere. Kansas this certainly is not: As in Oz, there’s a feeling of danger that looms well before the group begins to see the worst of what the alien landscape has to offer. As they move further into the Shimmer and begin to find traces of Kane’s expedition, they begin to see and feel the mutative effects the alien void is having on their bodies, they lose trust in each other (and eventually themselves) as their numbers dwindle in violent fashion.
And as the survivors draw closer and closer to the lighthouse—the landmark The Shimmer is believed to emanate from—the film mirrors its characters’ disintegrating mental state, going off the rails in the most spectacular way possible. ANNIHILATION’s final frames are especially chilling, revealing the full magnitude of grief’s transformative powers, and the dark things we’ll do to forget and forgive.