Last September, a trailer popped up on YouTube that immediately captured my attention. Right from the get-go, Annihilation had me hooked with its enigmatic teaser. It seemed to ooze all kinds of clever science-fiction goodness. The film is directed and written by Alex Garland, the mind behind Ex Machina, and the story comes from an acclaimed series of novels by Jeff VanderMeer. As time went on, I began counting down the days to Annihilation’s release. Needless to say, I had very high hopes.
Annihilation opens with Lena, played by Natalie Portman, being held in a containment unit. She is being interrogated about events that have recently occurred, and the rest of the movie happens through flashback. Lena is an Army veteran working as a biology professor. She’s torn up over the recent disappearance of her husband Kane, played by Oscar Isaac, who was an active-duty service member and had disappeared on deployment. She knew nothing about where he’d gone or whether he was alive. But one day he shows up in their home, disoriented and fragile. She tries rushing him to the hospital, only for government agents to detain them both. That’s when she ends up at Area X and encounters the phenomenon known as the Shimmer. Nobody knows what it is or what it’s doing. All they know is that anything that goes in never comes out… except for Kane. Upon learning that a squad of four scientists are planning on entering, Lena decides to sign on to the expedition.
This group of five scientists forms the core of the movie, and it’s a strong core indeed. Natalie Portman is joined by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Tessa Thompson to form the expedition. Bolstered by strong performances, all five manage to distinguish themselves over the course of the movie, instead of being cut-outs of the same characters. Now, in thrillers like these, main characters have a tendency to wander into danger. In Annihilation, our main characters don’t do that. They act with intelligence and tact, but at the same time they’re not perfect robots. They have human emotions like fear, and they each have their own way of coping with the extreme danger. They each have their own personal struggles that pushed them to taking this mission. It’s easy to identify with them.
The plot, to be brief, is incredibly fascinating. It plays a precarious balancing act. A lot of questions come up during the movie, and not all of them receive answers. In fact, I’d say that not even most of them get answers. Yet the film answers just enough to keep us hooked. For example, we never find out exactly what the Shimmer is. We do, however, get an answer to what it does, as well as a rough idea of its origin. I won’t give away too much here, but the point is clear.
It’s easy to answer too little in a story and lose your audience’s attention. It can come across as lazy. That’s not what happens in Annihilation. The film gives enough information to let the audience understand why the Shimmer is important and how it relates to the world and the characters. It’s rough-hewn to the point where we can understand what we need to know, and leave the theatre satisfied. Having so much remain unknown makes the Shimmer more intimidating and haunting.
I also have to bring up the visuals; they’re fantastic. On an editing front, the film gets cut with skillful craftsmanship. It simulates the feeling of the characters for the audience — we are left confused and disoriented at the same time that Lena is. As for the actual imagery, it’s stunning. During her interrogation, Lena describes the Shimmer as both beautiful and nightmarish. Sure enough, the film delivers some very awe-inspiring scenes that are elegant and lovely. It also descends into horrific scenes that left my mind reeling long afterwards.
That horror is one of the most impressive things I can praise here. The Shimmer is unlike anything I’ve seen on film before. As soon as our heroes enter, we immediately cut to days later. It leaves us confused, just like Lena and the rest of the team are, unable to recall anything since they entered the tree line. Right away, we’re pushed off kilter, and that’s before they encounter the mutants. Plants become more and more radical in their design, the creatures become stranger. The further the team progresses, the more extreme the mutations become. Annihilation builds a powerful set-up, and then hits hard with disturbing imagery and the best psychological horror I’ve seen in years. Even when Garland uses a single jump scare, he avoids the cliché of underscoring it with a stinger — that sudden blast of music to try and scare you. The night after I saw Annihilation I had trouble getting to sleep. Very few movies impact me like that.
I have just two criticisms of the film. First, with the setup of Lena explaining the story through the interrogation, now and again it does feel like too much “telling” is happening. Second, the soundtrack doesn’t always fit. There’ll be tense scenes where the team is heading into the unknown… and then a soft banjo plays a kind of folksy tune. It seems to clash. Of course, these are minor problems, and they’re not consistent. As I described before, the imagery shows plenty, and the soundtrack also has some incredible moments, especially in the climax.
If you’re in the mood for a heady sci-fi work or a scary movie night, I’d very much recommend Annihilation. It absolutely fulfilled my expectations, and it shows off something new, offering lots of intrigue and questions, while only sparingly providing answers. It thrilled me, it delighted me, it terrified me. Above all though, it left me thinking. Should we consider the Shimmer a threatening cancer? An innocent life form trying to figure out its place? Is it even intelligent? These are questions that will keep me puzzling.
David Gouldthorpe is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected].