Back in 2015, director Alex Garland made his debut with surprise hit “Ex Machina,” which blended compelling visuals with a poignant discussion of sentience, transcending the modern science fiction genre. Garland’s latest film “Annihilation,” based off Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 eponymous novel, further expands the definition of science fiction, while maintaining the sense of mystery that permeates the genre.
The movie’s action takes place in some part of the Southern coast, presumably in Florida, at a government Area X facility. After a meteor crashes into a lighthouse, the surrounding area is forever altered by the “shimmer,” an iridescent aura that transforms the laws of physics.
This shimmer becomes the subject of intense curiosity to the U.S. military: Specialized troops are sent into the shimmer in an attempt to study the phenomena only to end up missing. Merely one veteran, Kane, played by Oscar Isaac, returns, but he is ill from the expedition. The film then turns to Kane’s wife Lena, played by Natalie Portman, who is also a veteran. To investigate the cause of her husband’s illness, Lena decides to enter the shimmer with a team of female scientists.
Garland’s “Annihilation” departs from the norm of casting primarily male protagonists, featuring an almost entirely female cast, including Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny. Together, they bring a new perspective to the male-dominated science fiction genre.
Moreover, these characters’ scientific backgrounds provide a fascinatingly analytical look at the alien environments they face, as opposed to the often violent or imperialistic tones that often underlie other examples of the genre. The scientists’ goal is to understand and study the shimmer, rather than conquer or kill it.
The slow, suspenseful pace of “Annihilation’s” takes a deeper look at humanity by exploring how the situations thrust upon us can change us in unforeseeable ways. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the shimmer might not be the most dangerous threat. While the shimmer causes the surrounding area to morph into a wild nightmare, the real danger lies within the people who choose to enter it. The intense situation leads the women to question their sanity and the sanity of those around them.
All the protagonists bring their own baggage with them into the shimmer, treating the dangerous mission as an escape. In such an alien environment where the familiar is transformed, the protagonists’ inner conflicts are refracted into the world around them.
Although their struggles always existed, the life-threatening situation of the shimmer brings their issues to the surface, and they can no longer ignore the problems that had previously been drowned out through ordinary distractions. This conflict between the internal and external is one of the film’s strongest themes.
The film’s cinematographer Rob Hardy, who also shot “Ex Machina,” works with Garland to transform the natural world into a stunningly chilling scene. Often the camera will focus on one aspect of the shimmer and quickly subvert to the next image, disorienting the audience and capturing the inner turmoil of Lena and the crew. The bone-chilling attacks of mutated animals paired with the intricate set design further immerse you in the characters’ world. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s haunting score adds the final chilling element to the film.
“Annihilation” is by no means an easy viewing. There is no single theme; rather, it is a movie about biology, marriage, self-destruction, Earth’s environment and humanity. The film’s multiple points of access welcome varying understandings and beg the audience to reinterpret its initial conclusions.
Garland’s risky subversion of Hollywood’s expectations for science fiction paid off in this intellectual, breathtaking film. Mimicking Lena’s belief that the shimmer aims to create new life, “Annihilation” is “not destroying” the science fiction genre; rather, “it’s making something new.”