This review doesn’t spoil Annihilation‘s ending, but it does discuss the premise and some of the theories about the film’s larger metaphorical meaning.
Annihilation plays like a gender-swapped mash-up of John McTiernan’s Predator, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and James Cameron’s Aliens. Until it doesn’t. Those expecting a solid 115 minutes of sci-fi action are in for a hard, but rewarding swerve into art-house, mother! territory. Of course, due to a whitewashing scandal, the almost entirely female cast, and Paramount’s curious choice to sell international rights to Netflix, Annihilation has quickly become an internet talking point, and there is so much to be said about all of that. But, first things first: Annihilation is a wonderfully fascinating movie.
Natalie Portman plays Lena, who opens the story in a daze, surrounded by people in hazmat suits and struggling to answer their questions about what happened to her team, one of whom she confirms as being dead, the others she doesn’t know about for sure. Thus, the whole movie is told as a flashback with the built-in knowledge that wherever Lena ends up going and whoever she goes with she’s possibly the only one coming back.
From that point forward, the movie is told in four distinct stages: a character-establishing prologue, Lena at Area X (a super secret military/medical staging area for research and defense), Lena and her team in The Shimmer (a mysterious, ever-expanding wall of energy which may or may not be alien in origin and is being kept secret from the public), and The Lighthouse (just a normal lighthouse The Shimmer seems to have originated from). The latter three of these four stages of the story are actually announced via on-screen title cards.
In the prologue, we learn Lena is a biologist in mourning, prone to crying fits over her mysteriously lost husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), a soldier who hastily left on a top-secret mission only to go missing for an entire year. As a means of coping, Lena throws herself into her academic workload, but there’s clearly something missing, as we see in the example of her dispassionately explaining projected images of cancerous cells to a group of college students (this seemingly innocuous scene later proves to be wildly relevant thematically). When Kane suddenly returns as a near-amnesiac with quickly failing health, Lena is let in on what really happened.
Kane and his team went into The Shimmer, and he’s the only one who returned. More than that, he’s the only who has ever returned. Period. His team was far from the first military unit sent into The Shimmer, and they’re all considered dead now, with the working theory being either something in The Shimmer ate them or something about The Shimmer caused them to go crazy and kill each other. Kane’s survival is thus a breakthrough moment, but he’s on life support and all of the doctors are stumped as to what exactly is causing his stunning deterioration. So, to potentially save her husband and find some answers of her own Lena decides to tag along with an all-female group of scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny) into The Shimmer.
What happens after that is both more gratifying and challenging than expected:
Want to see these women shoot down some nasty beasties and/or go toe-to-toe with pure nightmare fuel creatures? You’re in luck, my friend.
Want to see mind-bending displays of otherworldly sci-fi? Just wait till the women encounter the crystal trees.
But maybe also want to pull back on the genre tropes and marches of dead meats to their doom in favor of deep character dives? Um, Annihilation at least tries to do that, at times coming off more interested in the why (why did these specific people volunteer for what’s probably a suicide mission?) than the where (where are they going?). The film doesn’t do quite as good of a job of this as it thinks it does, though, ultimately boiling the story down to Portman and Jason Leigh with the other three as throw-ins. Thompson, in particular, barely registers as an against-type, meek physicist who rarely ever speaks and whose backstory is told to us by other characters. But we at least more about her and the other supporting characters than we normally would in a movie like this.
Of course, since we open on Lena it’s no surprise she remains the focal point throughout, with Portman delivering exactly the kind of technically proficient, but somewhat cold performance I’ve come to expect from her (apologies to those who are bigger fans of her work). Jennifer Jason Leigh is perhaps the bigger surprise, not due to strength of performance but instead certain peculiar character choices. Playing a socially isolated psychologist, she adopts an oddly monotone vocal cadence which masks an inner turmoil that doesn’t become apparent until much, much later in the story. It took me a minute to catch on/adjust to what she was doing with the character.
Scary incidents, haunting visuals and surprising character turns quickly build up, and your mind starts racing to figure out what The Shimmer is supposed to represent. Is it like an air of toxic masculinity sweeping across the land that only women can defeat? Is this about immigration, Trump’s wall brought to gorgeously rendered, supernatural life? Or is it somehow about cancer, both the literal cancer and also all of the cancerous social issues which separate us today? Thankfully, you’re free to reach your own conclusions or simply ignore those questions entirely, as any larger metaphorical meaning can mostly be considered subtext. That is until the ending when the story veers into full-on mind-fuck territory. It’s an ending which left me stunned, and it has stuck with me in the days since, providing the most thoughtful mainstream sci-fi since Arrival.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Leave it to Alex Garland, the man behind Ex Machina, to take a testosterone-filled 80s action movie premise and turn it into a thoughtful reflection on broken people, self-destructive behavior, and the inescapable suspicion that the whole thing is just a giant metaphor for something much bigger, probably cancer.
CRITICAL CONSENSUS RIGHT NOW
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- It’s interesting that Alex Garland doesn’t really play his nightmare scenario for maximum dread. See David Bruckner’s work in Netflix’s The Ritual for a perfect example in how to do that, e.g., combine eerie music with clever aerial and tracking shots designed to make it look like the characters are practically being swallowed by the forest. Garland doesn’t really do any of that, instead playing it more for psychological dread, stressing not so much what goes bump in the night but instead what the night is doing to the minds and memories of the characters.
- Counterpoint to everything I just said: [SPOILER] Then again, there is that one scene with the bear that has human screams. That’s pretty damn scary.
I can’t wait to hear what everyone thinks about the ending and/or their theories about what The Shimmer represents. So, please share your thoughts with me in the comments section, and if you’re an international reader please come back in two weeks when the film is scheduled to be dropped on Netflix.