Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, David Gyasi
MPAA Rating: (for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality)
Running Time: 1:55
Release Date: 2/23/18
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 22, 2018
Given the opportunity to provide an explanation for what has happened or what has been learned over the course of Annihilation, a character offers what is perhaps the only rational response: "I don't know." This is something of a rarity for a mainstream science-fiction film. Here is a film that wholly embraces the concepts of the unknown and the uncertain.
That's not to say that the story, the science, or the final point of the film doesn't make sense. It's quite the contrary. Working from a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, writer/director Alex Garland has created a world, a plot, and a threat that make complete logical sense by the end. The major shift in purpose, though, is that all of these elements are self-contained. The seemingly important questions—how or why these events happened—belong to the realm of the unknown—the uncertain.
In other words, we don't receive any big answers. If one wants to understand the motivations of an alien presence that has landed on Earth via a meteorite, that person will have to either look elsewhere or create a motive out of whole cloth. So many stories about aliens assign motivations that assume or suggest human psychology or philosophy. It's a bit refreshing to be confronted with an alien presence that possesses nothing human. After all, if there is life beyond our planet, couldn't we also assume that such life would be beyond our understanding of life? Does an extraterrestrial entity even need a goal or a reason to do what it does? What if it simply does those things because they're what it is supposed to do?
The film opens with the meteorite crashing into an idyllic scene—a lighthouse situated on the coast of a swampy national park. Two years later, a great barrier has spread across that part of the land. It looks like a floating but structured mixture of oil and water, shimmering in purple, blue, and yellow, standing like a wall between our own reality and the unknown.
We learn that teams of mostly military personnel have been going through the barrier, called "the Shimmer," for at least a year. This was after unmanned drones and animals were sent in, never to return. The human expeditions have been equally unsuccessful in returning any information beyond the Shimmer. They disappear without a word and without a trace.
The story proper revolves around Lena (Natalie Portman), whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) was part of one of those military teams. She hasn't heard anything about his fate for a year and, given the secretive nature of his mission, assumes that he is dead. Just when she's getting used to referring to herself as "we" or her possessions as "ours," Kane appears inside the house. He doesn't remember how he got there, where his mission was, or what happened while he was on it. He does start coughing up blood.
On the way to the hospital, the two are detained by a clandestine police force and brought to a top-secret base called Area X. That's when Lena learns about the Shimmer, the meteorite, and the purpose of her husband's mission. Lena, a biology professor and Army veteran, decides that the only chance to save her husband is to go into the Shimmer with the next team of explorers and find the source of its creation.
The mystery of the Shimmer and what it contains is of central concern to Garland. It's a place of awe in the actual meaning of the word—filled with great beauty and the cause of tremendous fear. Here, the very structure of DNA is being altered, causing a single plant to grow with a variety of flowers, deer to have antlers that are decorated with blossoms, and other plants to grow in the shape of human beings (a sight that is both beautiful and inherently unsettling). On the other end of the spectrum are the terrifying creatures inhabiting the place, from a giant albino alligator, with teeth that appear more shark-like, and a sort of plant that seems to have erupted from a human body. There's a truly terrifying sequence involving another mutated creature, which roars with the familiar sound of a woman yelling.
The rest of the team is made up of Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and Cass (Tuva Novotny). Beyond Lena, whose grief over the fate of her husband and guilt about how she may have helped to put him in that position are explored through flashbacks, there's nothing exceptional about the characterizations here, except that they are all, as one character puts it, "damaged goods." The deepest level of these characters is a thematic one, namely the idea of the difference between suicide and self-destruction. According to one exchange, destruction is natural—even biological. The central question for these characters is how they face that inevitability—to fight it, to flee from it, to attempt to comprehend it, or to accept it.
It's enough to add some philosophical meat to the story, and those ideas come into play when we're confronted with the true nature of the alien presence at the heart of the Shimmer (an eerie sequence of unnatural sound and mirror-image motion that rivals the earlier monster attack for dread). Mostly, though, Annihilation is about the process of exploring—this strange world, its foundation, the way these characters react to it, and piecing together some understanding of how they are connected. The film is smart enough to create a functioning scientific explanation for its wonders and its terrors, but more importantly, it's wise enough to acknowledge that there must be things that are beyond our understanding.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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