Sometimes science fiction is like reading conspiracy theories. A big idea catches your interest and before you know it you’ve consumed a Wikipedia page’s worth of information. Some of it sticks, some of it doesn’t but you’re holding out to see if the big picture comes together. Many times, it falls apart long before you get to the end. You realize the people behind this theory are out of their minds and it’s not worth thinking about. Other times everything you’ve examined seems rational enough, but you’re missing the smoking gun – the piece that brings it all together. Every now and then you come across a theory that’s devoid of insanity or ulterior motives, something that makes you really think about it for a few moments or maybe weeks. Do we exist inside a simulation (The Matrix)? What would happen to earth if we were all infertile (Children of Men)? How does memory affect our decisions and who we love (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)? Films capable of posing these thoughtful questions are few and far between in an industry filled with pretentiousness and half-baked ideas. When you finally come across a film with depth to its ideas it’s unmistakable. You can’t get it out of your head. Annihilation is the latest movie I can’t get out of my head. It’s a gripping film that balances tension-filled moments with lofty big ideas. Accomplishing either of these goals would make it worth of recommendation. The combination of the two solidifies it as one of the best films in the genre.
Before stepping foot in the theater, the origin of Annihilation triggered some of my personal red flags. This is the second film from Alex Garland, the screenwriter/director who proved his sci-fi chops with Ex Machina (one of my favorites from 2015) previously wrote other worthwhile entries in the genre such as 28 Days Later or Sunshine, but unlike those films, Annihilation wasn’t conceived by Garland. Annihilation is based on the first book of a trilogy written by Jeff VanderMeer. Garland began adapting the book before the sequels were released and when they eventually came out he chose not to read them. Additionally, a common criticism of VanderMeer’s material was its lack of direction with some Amazon reviews using words like “undercooked” or “gibberish” to describe its bigger ideas. Everyone has their breaking point for when highfalutin ideas prove unsatisfying and I can recognize that my personal threshold is significantly lower than others. In other words, Annihilation looked to be going the way of some science fiction that uses dazzling spectacle and mystery boxes to hide shallow substance.
Contrary to my concerns, Annihilation is one of the more grounded stories in science fiction. The story is anchored around Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist in mourning due to the unexplained disappearance of her husband Kane after he accepted a secret mission for the military. Lena is surprised to find her husband return home unannounced, but something inside him has changed. He’s distant, barely recognizes Lena, and soon begins coughing blood and falls into multiple organ failure. Kane’s declining condition drives Lena to discover what happened to her husband. It’s quickly revealed that Kane was sent to investigate an area known as “the shimmer,” a growing anomaly that appeared on earth three years earlier. Lena volunteers to enter the shimmer, along with four other specialists, to uncover the shimmer’s purpose and what happened to Kane.
Annihilation doesn’t waste the audience’s time with misdirection or loose ends. The film is presented as Lena’s retelling of events in the shimmer after she has returned from the expedition. This framing enables the story to skip to the good parts and allows for infrequent exposition when additional information is needed without slowing down the pace. Lena’s retelling allows the film to distinguish between mysteries that require the audience’s attention from typical story beats that reach their own conclusion. For example, the beginning of the film has Lena quickly explain the fate of her fellow crew members. With each character’s conclusion established, the audience doesn’t have to spend time speculating on the ends of each character. Each character is given a definitive conclusion that doesn’t require any amount of speculation. Instead the audience can focus on how each person’s fate provides context and understanding to the bigger question: what is the shimmer?
It is worth noting that if you are not one who enjoys crafting theories for high concept films, Annihilation has strong fundamentals anyone can enjoy. Lena is a strong character on her own, supported by Portman’s realistic portrayal of a highly intelligent, physically competent woman, who makes mistakes like any other ordinary person. The other crew members have their own personalities and backgrounds that explain why they’re on a suicide mission and what they contribute to the expedition. In today’s era, a main cast headlined by five women could be seen as a novelty, but the film treats its cast’s identity indifferently. There’s no reference to how women are more or less equipped to handle the dangers of the shimmer and the personalities are as varied as can be, ranging from aggressively insecure to quietly confident.
If you don’t make a connection with the characters, the film’s expertly crafted moments are enough to keep your attention. Annihilation may be classified as science fiction but many encounters with the strangeness of the shimmer establish fear so effectively it’d be easy to label it a horror film. The terrors of the expedition occupy the entire spectrum of dread, from violent tension and body gore to extensional dread and nihilism. While many science fiction films may see mystery and discovery as a fun adventure, Annihilation depicts the debilitating fear of the unknown more effectively than any other film in recent memory.
The mysteries may hold a traditional audience’s attention but the true achievement of Annihilation is its third act that goes all-in on the inexplicable but still crafts a coherent conclusion. Which isn’t to say that the ending is straight-forward. The final encounter has a bevy of mind-blowing nightmare fuel, but the film treats its audience with respect by cluing them into what characters know and being upfront with what they don’t know. Lena’s final encounter is presented uninterrupted through traditional film techniques (no 10 minute light show sequence accompanied with operatic vocals as seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey), and we even get her interpretation of the encounter. But the answer to the question of the shimmer is found through studying the film’s themes rather than directly addressed by the narrative. These themes include the nature of cell reproduction, biology’s disposition for reproduction and self-destruction and the reoccurring visual of the infinity symbol. I won’t say I have a confident grasp of the nature of the shimmer, but I felt the film gave me enough clues to piece together a satisfying interpretation.
Of course, if Annihilation is anything like Garland’s previous work, there may be an endless number of interpretations. I’ve personally had multiple heated arguments over what Ex Machina is “really about,” and I anticipate similar conversation about Annihilation. Unlike many other vague high-concept tales, the discussion surrounding Annihilation is motivated by the film’s complexity and the density of ideas worth reflecting on. The tragedy of each character’s fate, the scientific possibility of the shimmer’s hellscape creations or the purpose of the shimmer’s existence. Whether the conversations around Annihilation are limited to guttural reactions or expand to dozens of conspiracy-ridden Wikipedia article entries, it’s a movie going experience that you won’t be able to get out of your head, and one of the finest in the genre.