Cold open. A single shot of a woman, seated, dressed in a white hospital uniform, spans the screen. She is disheveled. Her gaze is worn, battered, scared. Silence; then questions, to which she responds, mostly, “I don’t know.” After this terse tete-a-tete, the man in the hazmat suit says: “well, tell me what you do know.” And we’re off.
Director Alex Garland’s new film, Annihilation, sits squarely in a philosophical morass. It may be a host of different things. A colloquy with mortality? Perhaps. A belletristic thesis on our species’ perpetual attempts to evade death’s rattle? Also plausible. The provocations are endless. One can see them as complex triumphs or invidious bemusements.
The story centers around Lena (Natalie Portman), an ex-soldier, now in academia, who teaches biology at Johns Hopkins University. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), has been missing for a year, presumably killed in action. Lena is beleaguered by her loss, but mired in the astringent hope that comes from a door partially cracked. As she paints the couple’s bedroom a new coat of blue, her husband shows up in the doorway, silent and glazed. Lena embraces him, only to be met with awkward aplomb. As she tries to pry information out of her husband about his mission — what happened, where he was sent, even what base he flew into — the camera glides to focus on the image of Kane’s hand resting on the kitchen table, distorted and magnified by the water in his glass. Something has changed.
For one, Kane is severely ill, and the two soon find themselves at a secure facility, “Area X.” A psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), asks Lena what her husband told her about his operation. Lena replies with the truth, that she knows nothing. Ventress then explains to Lena that her husband went into “The Shimmer,” an undulating, soap-in-sunlight veil that houses a world behind it. This ectoplasmic entity has been blooming outward ever since its source crashed into a lighthouse on the coast. Lena is being housed in a quarantine zone just outside the spreading shimmer. Her husband, Kane, went in to try to investigate the potential alien malignance that was spreading, and was the only one of his crew, and of the dozens of other crews, to return. Lena, reflecting on memories of her husband, who now lies near-death in a hospital bed, meets a group of three women (Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny) working at the base. They tell her that they are going to travel into The Shimmer in six days’ time, and Lena decides to join them to try to understand her husband’s source of unraveling.
The Shimmer, and the phenomena it contains, injects the film with a quite legitimate and omnipresent fear of annihilation. Similar to the ever-encroaching horror in It Follows, we feel as if always on the brink of total destruction, even as the characters exude a sort of naïve curiosity inside the beautiful and grotesque world of The Shimmer. While its environment may seem to roil with maleficent beasts, The Shimmer’s strangeness comes in its duality; it contains a certain beauty, as well as a certain horror. Lena and co. discover The Shimmer is itself not anathema to humanity, but warps us in a way the human intelligence chafes against. It is merely a prism that refracts everything within it (as is pointed out, radio waves are not destroyed, but scrambled), even human DNA. The Shimmer is not aimed at destroying, but “creating something new,” as Lena tells her hazmat interrogator.
As it is stated in the film, those who venture inside The Shimmer either go crazy and kill everyone around them, or are killed by the things inside The Shimmer itself. These two notions converge at what may be the film’s larger didactic point. As humans we resent time. We resent death and the process of becoming older, because it is all out of our control. The Shimmer is an attempt to transcend our earthy options, to find something that makes time mutable. This is our ultimate desire, to somehow repurpose our short clips of life into something eternal. As Lena says during a flashback with Kane: “People think aging is a natural process, but it is actually just a fault in our genes.” What The Shimmer really does is difficult to define. But what seems to lend it attraction is the Flamelian possibility of immortality in another form.
Our desire to obviate age, to revolt against death, is at the very heart of the human experience. The Shimmer takes every cell of our being and incorporates them into its mutated, infant world. It erases our memories and inculcates us into a new environment. We are eluding death, just as we hoped, but we aren’t sure we like how we’re doing it. Forgetting our world and the memories we’ve cathected onto, cut into space and time, is a sad and terrible annihilation. Lena and her squad dive deep into this netherworld they struggle to understand, and their humanities are turned inside-out by native creatures and native notions. “Native” to The Shimmer, alien to us.
Despite all of these endlessly devolving provocations, the film, on a purely aesthetic level, is a beautiful one. The world created by Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy is one of visual entrapment. One is swept up by the rolling beauty of the cinemascape. This genre-beast perfectly joins the terrifying and the beautiful to create the sublime. Consequently, the haunting, ominous score, composed by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, undertones the film with an exceptional dread in opposition to the gorgeous landscape. Enigmatic beauty is brought along, wrestling its own sounds of horror.
Perhaps, though, the biggest pitfall of Annihilation is its director’s creative wet dream, delivered to us at the end. The final thirty or so minutes (minus the last five) are a confusing, creative embellishment, whipping with visual filigree that leaves the viewer ambivalent and partially aghast. It is a departure from the steadily stunning towards the unsettlingly overstimulated, essentially elaborate nonsense that takes away from all the other virtues of the film. That said, Annihilation is still very much a film worth seeing, if simply for its aesthetic triumphs and philosophical inquiry. We need more of both. In an age of CGI-ed boom-scapes and trifles pretending to be films, Alex Garland’s Annihilation seems to reach for something satisfyingly deeper. As to what the film is definitively saying, my answer is the same as Lena’s: “I don’t know.”