Following on the heels of his successful Ex Machina, Alex Garland decided to expore more reality-shifting concepts in his movie Annihilation. The result is intelligent, moody and scary, but great science fiction
In the story, an asteroid lands at a lighthouse outside a government facility, and a strange phenomena engulfs the area, known as “the Shimmer.” A military/science team goes in to investigate, and only one man, Kane (played by Oscar Isaac) comes out, but he is soon taken ill. Kane’s wife, Lena, also a scientist (played by Natalie Portman), is drafted into going back into the Shimmer with a new team. They discover that live genetics are being rewritten in the area, creating nightmarish hybrid plants and animals, and finally creating changes in the team.
In many ways, Annihiation is a counterpoint toGarland’s last movie, Ex Machina, which dealt with the concepts of artificial intelligence and its inevitable comparison to human intelligence, consciousness and identity. Ex Machina‘s conflict was Man against Technology, our innate trouble controlling our own creations. Annihiation, in contrast, deals with natural life, and at a genetic level; it shows the viewer how closely similar is the genetic code of humans, other animals, and even plants on Earth, and the possibilities should any of those genetic codes get prompted to mix and match.
But whereas Ex Machina is mostly pgsychological drama with a side note of sexual tension, Annihilation‘s mutated animals who attack in the dark, the ever-popular “group that gets picked off one-at-a-time” trope, plus a “found footage” moment that evokes the creepy voyeuristic feel of The Blair Witch Project, give this movie much more of a traditional horror feel. It was the horror notes that kept me from jumping off my couch and rushing right off to the theater to see it (I’m not a horror movie guy)… but I eventually got over my trepidation when it became available on-demand.
Lena and the rest of the cast play the story absolutely straight, no out-of-place joking around or sad comic relief elements, which emphasizes the seriousness of this story. As the movie starts with Lena in some type of holding facility, answering the questions of an unusually-neutral interrogator with others silently looking on, we immediately get that this is no moment of relaxation after the incident… whatever happened rattled everyone to the core, and they’re still trying to deal with its ramifications. It’s almost a film noir moment, when the main character, still in shock or grief from the previous events, is being interrogated by the cops in a smoky room. So the story is being presented in flashback, with only an occasional return to the interrogation room, and at the very end.
Garland tries harder than most horror makers to give his characters more depth and interest, to the point that you want at least some of them to survive their mission, or at least to find some peace with the baggage they bring with them. And with the strangeness all around, there is also incredible beauty, leaving the viewer to sometimes wonder how they’re supposed to react to the wonder that occasionally intrudes into the nightmare. He does a great job of making Annihilation more than a Jurassic Park-type action adventure, with characters being chased by creatures through predictable set-pieces trying to out-clever each other. This feels more like the eternal struggle of Man against Nature, in which Nature’s savagery and power can easily outdo a rifle or trap, and has been bumped up a considerable notch besides.
As we’ve come to expect from these stories, Lena finally finds the center of the disturbance, and at that location, she finds something alien and intelligent which must be destroyed before it can spread. But by the time we reach this point, it all seems rather predictable… and in fact, we know by the flashback format that Lena gets out, so we are never really in fear for the character to survive. So the horror movie reverts to an intellectual exercise, and the only matter to be established is whether Lena was successful in stopping what is, essentially, an alien invasion.
Or… a cancer. As has been suggested by Matt Goldberg on Collider, the alien element and its ability to morph the environment at will is analagous to a cancer suddenly appearing and starting to spread in the body. Lena’s scenes teaching future doctors how cells divide and grow foreshadow the events in the Shimmer. So when Lena finally reaches the tumor at its center, she applies the weapons at her disposal to burn it away and stop the spread of the cancer.
What the story doesn’t do such a great job explaining is why Lena’s team is all women, or why a team no larger than her husband’s earlier team, who all died except him, is being sent in. “The other teams were all men, so maybe you’ll do better” is about the extent of their logic. Whut the whut? Did you expect the women to bring rolling pins with them, too? That’s damned weak sauce. Like public school kindergarten weak sauce.
Goldberg suggests that it has something to do with breast cancer being the leading form of cancer, affecting more women than men, and the differing ways that the other characters die are reflective of the different ways women face death… fighting it, facing it, being taken by it before anyone knows what happened. But I still can’t see a justification for the skewed movie-logic that gives you an all-female team. Men get cancer, too, and can die from it; was there some reason we couldn’t see that? Why wasn’t there a discussion about how the men’s teams died? This is, to me, the most ham-fisted plot element of Annihilation, the only thing I would’ve changed if I had been in on the production.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie despite its horror elements, but it will be a while before I feel the need to revisit this story. It was good, but with some issues (like the gender bias) that I just don’t get. Still, Garland has proven he can do serious science fiction, and I hope he has plenty of opportunities to do more.