Just like any genre, the realm of science fiction allows it to appear in many forms, from exciting genre movies with a lot of flash bang special effects, to slow moving art house think pieces. In recent years, although there have been many thought provoking science fiction movies, many have gotten used to science fiction movies that have a lot of special effects and that are faster paced. “Annihilation”, Alex Garland’s latest movie, steps away from that with his adaptation of the Jeff VanderMeer novel of the same name. With this movie, Garland created a visually stunning and though provoking piece that hearkens back to the aesthetic of science fiction movies of old, and a movie that is ripe for discussion due to the themes it focuses upon and due to its ambiguous nature.
“Annihilation” was directed by Alex Garland, and is a loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name. Garland also wrote the screenplay of the movie, and decided to give more focus on the “dreamlike” quality of the entire experience. There were definitely some changes that were made for the film, but based on the synopsis of the book and the “Southern Reach” trilogy of which “Annihilation” is part of, I think that Garland was able to capture the essence of what was in there, while still showing his own interpretation of it. (I haven’t read the “Southern Reach” trilogy yet, but I am planning to do so in the future. My book reviews of those will also probably touch a little on the movie as well.)
The movie starred Natalie Portman as Lena, a biologist; Oscar Isaac as her husband, a soldier named Kane; Gina Rodriguez as Anya Thorenson, a paramedic; Tessa Thompson as Josie Radek, a physicist; Tuvo Novotny as Cass Sheppard, a surveyor and geologist; and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr. Ventress, a psychologist and their team leader.
The movie is told in a non-linear fashion, with Lena having flashbacks to happier times with her and her husband in their home; and with the framing device of Lena being interrogated about what happened to her and the rest of the expedition during their journey into “The Shimmer”.
The movie follows Lena, who decides to join an expedition of scientists into “The Shimmer”, a quarantined area affected by this mysterious phenomenon, after her husband comes home from a similar expedition with signs of massive radiation poisoning.
The rest of the movie tracks their journey to the lighthouse, where the source of “The Shimmer” is at, hoping to learn more about the mysterious phenomenon which has begun to spread and affect larger portions of area. Along the way, they find various mutations, from flowers to animals, both beautiful and deadly, and slowly begin to discover what awaits their team as they go deeper into the area. It also shows how “The Shimmer” affects each one of them and how they react to it, which becomes a big focus of the movie.
One should not expect a definite ending with all the answers being solved, as Garland intentionally left it up in the air, which allows for a lot of discussion after the movie is over.
The movie is a visually stunning piece of work, with its use of color, and a mixture of old school effects and CGI, which works, as the old school effects are consistent with the aesthetic that Garland created.
The performances were all fantastic. Portman does well portraying strong female characters who are broken, and it shows here. Leigh is great as Ventress, who masks her feelings throughout the entire expedition; Thompson shows us a more vulnerable side; Novotny is likeable yet damaged; and Rodriguez is able to go out of her “Jane the Virgin” comfort zone to show us what she can do.
The wonderful thing about this movie is how open it is to interpretation, and how those interpretations go hand in hand with what one things The Shimmer really is, and what it stands for. There are some who have thought that The Shimmer is a metaphor for cancer or despair; while Garland’s own interpretation of it was self-destruction, which is also evident in each of the main five characters. Regardless of whatever you think, it is amazing that so many interpretations can fit and make sense in the context of this movie.
(Also, if you do want a warning about these kinds of things, there was one awkward bedroom scene in which you just see Portman’s back and hear sounds, but I really thought that they could have done that scene in a different way to imply what happened.)
In the end, “Annihilation” is a stunning thought provoking, high concept science fiction movie that leaves you thinking about it for a long time; and that has a quality and aesthetic to it that you don’t see often anymore, making it a breath of fresh air in the realm of science fiction movies.
Now, you know the drill. From here on out, there will be spoilers!
One thing that I loved about this movie was the fact that each member of the expedition really did have something to offer to the group, and wasn’t just canon fodder; and that it made sense from a narrative and creative standpoint that they, a group of women, went inside the Shimmer, and there was no hype about it at all. This was refreshing to see as the casting wasn’t there because of anything else but because the story and the casting did call for it.
As I keep repeating, this movie was visually stunning, and I love how they showed the increasing degree of how The Shimmer affected the environment around them as they moved on and went deeper into it. They first showed subtle mutations, such as the flowers and the alligator with two rows of teeth; and then it got worse, such as the duplicate deer, the mutated bear with the dying Cass’ voice, their blood changing, plants with humanoid forms, their insides moving, etc. I also love how it gave off a certain atmosphere that the mutations around them were beautiful and terrifying at the same time as well.
The part that I utterly fell in love with, however, was that end scene in the lighthouse with Lena, that had no dialogue at all, but just stunning visuals and a beautiful movement sequence.
In this part, Ventress had gotten consumed by The Shimmer, and burst, creating a Shimmer vortex that Lena looked into. This vortex somehow also took her DNA and created a humanoid like being that followed her out into the the main foyer of the lighthouse and copied everything she did. After trying to escape the lighthouse to no avail, Lena outsmarted the creature by giving it enough to copy how she looked like and her thoughts, which allowed her to give her copy a hand grenade, which exploded, and her copy burned the entire lighthouse and at the same time, the source of the Shimmer.
That movement sequence was just stunning, as it was almost like a dance, and because you knew that it wasn’t a CGI humanoid that was copying her, but another actress enveloped in a foil like costume. That sequence of the source of the Shimmer burning and filling the screen with white, was just amazing.
That entire sequence was mesmerizing and just utterly beautiful.
When I first saw the trailer, I first thought that it would be more horror than science fiction, but while watching it, I realized that I had nothing much to be scared about. Sure, the mutations were beautiful and scary at the same time, and there were some jump scares, and body horror, but nothing that would get me to stay awake at night.
It was also good that even though some characters’ appearances were short lived, that they each had a clear story arc which was related to the way they reacted to the Shimmer. They all reacted to it in character, and it was interesting that each of them had some sort of self-destructive behavior as well.
Cass, the first person who died in their group, had just lost her daughter to leukemia, and was violently killed by a bear, although her legacy lived on as her dying screams became part of the bear itself. Anya, who has a history of substance abuse, showed signs of fear early on, and in the end, succumbed to the fear and ended up getting killed. Josie, who was suicidal and a cutter, decided to embrace whatever the Shimmer was, and became a plant like human. Ventress, who was dying of cancer, and whose entire life was consumed by the Shimmer, literally did become consumed by it. And lastly, Lena, who wanted to fight the Shimmer by finding more about it, was the one who was able to resist the most because of how she reacted to it, and ended up becoming something new.
Many have seen The Shimmer as a metaphor for cancer, despair and self-destruction. The wonderful thing is that the reaction of these five ladies does work in any of those given interpretations. I also like the fact that Garland explained in an interview that self-destruction doesn’t necessarily mean literally and emotionally abusing yourself, but it can come in many different forms as well, both good and bad. In that way, Garland also talks about life itself, and how destruction also lends itself to creation.
Now, let’s talk about that ending. I do believe that the Kane we see at the very end of the movie is definitely the copy of Kane. However, I believe that the original Lena was the one that left The Shimmer, but this Lena is a Lena hybrid, as her genetic makeup is now combined with that of the The Shimmer.
As for The Shimmer itself, I do think that it is alien. However, I do like the fact that it isn’t intrinsically evil, and that its desire to destroy to create something new almost seems like what it naturally does. There’s no motivation to be found here, it just is. It is just that when something strange like this happens, people automatically assume that it is evil.
All in all,”Annihilation” is a thought provoking science fiction movie with an aesthetic reminiscent of old classics. Not many people will appreciate this movie for what it is, but if you are willing to take your chances on a visually stunning slow burn movie, then this one is for you.
Have you seen “Annihilation”? What did you think about the ending? What metaphor do you attribute The Shimmer with? Did you like or not like the movie? Let me know what you think in the comments below!