There is almost certainly nothing more horrible than your own body turning against you. The thought of the familiar becoming unfamiliar is a universal nightmare; the biology you depended on for everyday living turning into the engine of your destruction. The most common name we use to describe this biological rebellion is cancer.
Cancer seems to be at the heart of Annihilation, the new science fiction movie based on the book of the same name by Jeff Vandermeer. But it is expressed in a different way than we are used to. In this story, the entire world seems to be transforming into something incomprehensible and dangerous. That’s a horror even greater than your own body turning against you. But is it necessarily evil? Or is it just…different?
I’ve never had the pleasure of reading Annihilation or any of Vandermeer’s related books about the “Southern Reach,” the area of the world transforming into something unknown. Those books seem to have quite a mixed response to them at Amazon and other book review websites. However, I do know Annihilation director Alex Garland through his previous work Ex Machina. That was a disquieting and thoroughly adult piece of science fiction that dealt with man creating artificial lifeforms for his own pleasure and curiosity without reckoning with that new life’s own thoughts and desires. That movie put Garland on the map right away as a talent to watch.
He was the right man to helm Annihilation. He handles this story in the same sober fashion, but he has a much bigger canvas to play with and a lot purer horror to put on the screen. This is a story that mixes science fiction, horror and drama in equal measure. Do not watch this expecting a movie that looks like a video game or that jumps around with manic energy. Many parts of the film are on the “quiet” side, but it also explodes into truly horrific imagery.
The film begins with an extraterrestrial object striking a coastal lighthouse somewhere and then fittingly moves to an image of a normal cell multiplying. Later in the movie, we will see other cells performing this simple act, but they will be anything but “normal.” Our protagonist Lena (Natalie Portman) is giving a college lecture on cellular reproduction. She is a biology teacher at a university.
It soon becomes evident she is in mourning for the apparent death of her husband Kane, a Special Ops soldier who gets sent into highly classified and dangerous assignments. Lena is also a former military person so she understands the lifestyle. There has been no word from Kane for over a year and Lena has a hard time giving him up. The Crosby, Stills and Nash tune “Helplessly Hoping” is played in the background in what seems the typically corny fashion modern movies use to transmit meaning. But by the time the movie is done, those lyrics will take on a different meaning.
Just as Lena seems ready to maybe move on with her life, Kane (Oscar Isaac) shockingly reappears at their home. But joy soon becomes unease. Kane seems to be a blank, virtually autistic character, unable to say anything about where he’s been or what’s happened to him. How he got to Lena’s home remains one of the movie’s big mysteries. Before long, he is convulsing and spitting up blood. His organs seem to be failing.
During a frantic ambulance ride, the military brutally appears and commandeers the vehicle. The soldiers are masked in hazmat gear. Lena and Kane are treated like virtual prisoners and when we next see them, Lena is being held at some sort of secret military base known as Area X and Kane is hooked up to a mountain of equipment that is keeping his failed organs working. Lena is finally introduced to Dr. Ventress, a psychologist who apparently has some authority. Played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actress I haven’t seen in a while, Ventress seems almost as emotionally dead as Kane. But she does explain to Lena what’s actually going on.
Some time ago, a mysterious extraterrestrial object made an impact on the southern coast of the US. Exactly where is never specified, but I would say South Carolina. This impact triggered a strange event known as The Shimmer…a glowing, prismatic effect that acts like a wall. Behind The Shimmer, all communication is cut off. To make things worse, the Shimmer is slowly expanding…much like cancer in a human body.
The government has strictly cut the area off from the world and established Area X to study it. Many specialized military and scientific expeditions have been sent into the Shimmer. None have ever returned or even sent a message of what’s happening. This was Kane’s last secret mission which he could not tell Lena about. And Kane is the first man to ever return from beyond the Shimmer, although no one knows how.
Now Lena knows why she and Kane were shanghaied to Area X. Ventress is aware of Lena’s military background and her knowledge of biology. She makes an offer for her to join the team studying The Shimmer. She can either do that or basically be a prisoner. Lena accepts and soon makes the acquaintance of several other women in Area X. Anya is a tough but seemingly friendly military grunt. Radek is a shy and reserved physicist while Cass is a specialist in languages and more. Lena joins this tight knit group but refrains from telling them of her connection with Kane.
Dr. Ventress has a proposal for the women. All previous lost expeditions have been exclusively male. She wants to head up an all-female group to penetrate the Shimmer wall and get answers. Doing things by the book has made no difference so far. The women all agree and prepare for the expedition. We gradually learn that all of them, including Lena, have some secret shame or psychological hang-up in their background.
The movie so far has been slow, mostly quiet and very foreboding, but when the Ventress expedition finally crosses beyond the Shimmer wall, Annihilation turns into a story of survival and gradually mounting horror of the most visceral kind.
Strangeness begins immediately when the women break through the wall. They find themselves in a fully erected camp that none of them can remember setting up. They have no idea how much time has passed. Compasses are useless and communications equipment, as expected, doesn’t work. The sky beyond The Shimmer is multi-colored and prismatic…not in an over the top way, but in a very subtle and disorienting fashion. And the native ecology is becoming…different.
Beyond the Shimmer, the women are in a swampy environment that is a riot of colorful new lifeforms. Multicolored flowers are everywhere. Lena cannot identify most of the species, but they seem related to well-known form, only distorted. They find the distortion is not limited to plant life when a mutated alligator attacks the expedition. While obviously a gator, this creature is pinkish and tumor-covered, with a jaw that is growing shark’s teeth…a biological impossibility.
Unnerved, the expedition continues deeper into Shimmer territory. Examination of changed lifeforms has led Radek to come up with a radical theory. Whatever the object that hit the lighthouse was, it has caused everything in the Shimmer to “refract”…not just sunlight and radiation, but the cells of everything living in its domain. The refraction is causing DNA to mutate to a different order of life. And it will cause the members of the expedition themselves to eventually distort.
Following that disturbing revelation, the team finds an abandoned military base. There are signs that previous expeditions have used the base as a focal point for their exploration. But there is nobody left there now…unless you count the bizarre human corpse that is splattered against a wall like a creeping fungus.
They also find a video left behind by the last expedition. The video reveals an almost unimaginable horror committed by those men…and Lena’s husband Kane was the man doing the worst of it. The women see just how far being in the Shimmer can change a person. Even the unflappable Ventress is repulsed and the formerly tough and approachable Anya seems ready to snap completely. On top of the horror revealed by the video, a monstrous mutated bear attacks from the shadows and claims a victim.
The military and scientific discipline of the expedition now breaks apart completely. Fear and panic grips the women. Skull faced and ghastly, the bear returns to stalk the survivors…it has also acquired the ability to somehow imitate the cries of its victims, leading to an extremely eerie scene.
The human instinct to survive now takes over. Ventress is determined to press forward and reach the lighthouse, the source of the Shimmer’s distortion, for her own personal reasons. Lena follows her mainly to find out what could have caused Kane to do what he did in the video. There is a feeling that this is a suicide mission with no way back.
Lena and Ventress finally do reach the lighthouse, which stands in a beautifully eerie landscape of crystal trees and black sand. This part of Earth now seems to be somewhere else. Within that lighthouse, they will find answers…and more questions. You will have to discover those yourself…and come up with your own answers.
Annihilation is a thinking man’s horror and sci-fi movie, which is something in short supply these days. I’d be the last to say the movie is perfect. There is a framing sequence that reoccurs throughout where Lena is being interrogated by figures in hazmat suits about what happened on her expedition. Unfortunately this reveals a lot of what happens later on fairly early in the movie, including the fate of the expedition members. The casual viewer might not catch that, but the smart viewer will. That kills a lot of the movie’s surprises.
The film is comparable in several ways to the “body horror” pictures of David Cronenberg. Cronenberg was a master of showing the terror of your body turning against you. That terror is a big part of Annihilation. One character notices with shock that her fingerprints are beginning to twist and slither. Again, the cancer analogy comes up. Not only are individuals dealing with their bodies turning against them, but the entire world inside the Shimmer is becoming something that is invading our “healthy” world.
One of the most interesting questions the movie brings up is if this change is necessarily a bad thing. Even Lena admits that the plants and animals in the Shimmer are becoming “different,” but they don’t seem to be sick. “I don’t think it necessarily ‘wants’ anything,” she tells her government interrogator at one point. In one scene, she spies a couple of mutated deer in the forest. These creatures look strange, but their behavior is still the same and they seem content with their new form. Human beings tend to fear the strange even if it’s not harmful. On the other hand, a skull-faced bear that uses its victims screams to hunt and a gator with shark teeth are not exactly pleasant to think about.
Is there an intelligence that is guiding these changes? That is also very ambiguous. In H.P. Lovecraft’s classic “The Colour Out of Space,” the extradimensional force that turns Nahum Gardner’s farm into a nightmare is never described as purely evil or intelligent. It’s just something so different that it cannot coexist with our “normal” world. The nameless force that creates the Shimmer may be of the same type…or it may not. This force is interested in duplicating our form of life, but does it understand it? That is the question you will have to answer yourself after seeing the last scene of Annihilation.
Alex Garland shows here that Ex Machina was not a onetime fluke. He makes use of inspiration from Kubrick, Cronenberg and Lynch to create a disquieting film with Annihilation. The most disquieting thing about it is that it doesn’t provide all the answers. But the questions will give you a lot to ponder.