I’m quite enjoying this whole ‘exclusive to Netflix‘ thing. Thanks to Netflix, I got to see an entirely new movie without having enduring my natural enemy, the snow (an embarrassing weakness for any Yorkshire man to have). Also, I didn’t have to put up with any Dorito-munching mouth-breathers.
So, I saw Annihilation recently, a science-horror film directed by Alex Garland. Garland is a man who has (someway or another) been involved with several of my favourite films of the last couple of decades (28 Days Later, Dredd, Sunshine, and Ex Machina). It’s also (sort of) based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer, specifically the first of his Southern Reach Trilogy.
As someone who has read the book, I’m rather thankful Garland has taken an extremely liberal approach to the source material. That book was an exercise in obfuscation, and an experience on par with asking my girlfriend what she wants for tea tonight.
In the film’s version of events, a mysterious space object crashes into a lighthouse on the United States’ southern coast. This results in ‘The Shimmer’, an anomalous area of eco-madness that’s in a worse state than Brendan Fraser‘s post-The Mummy 3 career. The Shimmer, it seems, is expanding and all attempts to survey it have been met by the snag of the expedition teams dying. Dangerous mutations run rampant, and the laws of physics are in such a disarray one can imagine Stephen Hawking spinning in his grave…if it wasn’t for the whole wheelchair thing, anyway.
Meanwhile, a shady U.S Government division (is there any other kind?) called The Southern Reach have set-up a facility to investigate this anomaly. Sort of like Half-Life‘s Black Mesa, only with markedly less people who have PHDs in pratting about. The Southern Reach have spent the last three years sending expeditions into The Shimmer: the most recent and second most recent expeditions being the focus of the story. I’m just thankful Garland changed to the anomaly’s name from what it was in the book, because Area X sounds like that part of the video store I was never allowed to go in as a kid.
Following the brief opening depicting space’s fire and fury, the film cuts to three years later as sole survivor of the latest (all-female) expedition, Lena (Natalie Portman), is interrogated by the shady organisation. Right off the bat we’re told that all the other members of the expedition met their end. A ballsy move for a film which then proceeds to mostly be a flashback to that expedition, you may think. But once Annihilation establishes this bit of information, you can get straight into Predator mode and content yourself with knowing these thinly-characterised individuals are going to get picked off one-by-one.
Garland presents us with the well-trodden formula of a science team, who are one-level above redshirt, exploring the unknown and dropping like Facebook’s stock prices post-Cambridge Analytica. But it’s ultimately subversive. They’re not killed by some ropey CGI monster or anti-sex serial killer. Instead they’re sacrificial lambs to Garland’s exploration of high concept science-fiction, thus turning the formula from cheap entertainment into a vehicle for his ideas.
If you’ve read Roadside Picnic by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (or seen its film adaptation, Stalker); read H.P. Lovecraft‘s The Colour Out of Space; or seen that segment of Creepshow in which Stephen King plays a redneck who succumbs to an alien fungus, then you’ll have a good idea idea of how Annihilation plays out. The film throws a tonne of weird imagery and body horror at the viewer.
In that respect, Annihilation is certainly a beautifully-shot movie – if in a morbid sort of way. It’s full of startling pastoral imagery. From the moment the team cross the border into The Shimmer – the electromagnetic border, here represented as the Windows XP media player visualiser – they are thrust into a world reclaimed by nature. The transition is represented by their leaving behind a world of drab universities, laboratories, and houses, entering into a wild collection of lush meadows and forests, and vibrant plantlife.
But this isn’t Arcadia. It’s the playground for the horrible side of Nature responsible for creating moths and AIDs. A nightmarish, self-replicating world of people turning into plants, colourful fungi overrunning everything, and horrifying animal mash-ups (shark-crocodiles, and whatever the hell that bear thing was) lifted straight out of the back of my maths’ exercise books.
In Annihilation’s humanity vs nature aspect, the logic behind the all-female cast becomes obvious. Lena’s expedition is comprised of; Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a psychologist and the group leader, paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez); physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), and surveyor and geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny). Though their actresses’ individual performances are good, most of the characters themselves can be reduced to a single adjective. Secretive (Ventress). Hard-ass (Josie). Solemn (Anya). Pointless (Cass).
It’s Lena – in her mission to regain focus of her life and discover what happened to her husband on a previous expedition and find a cure for his illness – who drives the story. Lena’s soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is the only male character of importance, and even he’s mostly relegated to flashbacks (though he remains very much a driving presence). There’s also Lena’s colleague Daniel (David Gyasi), I suppose, but all he does is sleep with Lena whilst her husband is missing
The intent behind the gender-ratio is to subvert the usual macho-military tropes which dominate this type of man vs nature story. This is even mentioned in the film. But considering Annihilation seems to take place in some egalitarian future in which gender has no bearing, and the group descends into the usual Lord of the Flies style paranoia and brutality anyway, it seems like going round the houses to me.
Overall, Annihilation is an excellent sci-fi/horror film, which I think will stand with the very best. It’s cosmic in scope, dismantling the idea of humanity in a way you’d expect from a film called ‘Annihilation’ (even if the obligatory film title in movie reference is delivered in an entirely different context). Garland raises difficult questions about nature, humanity, relationships, the cosmos, and life itself, and offers few answers.
These questions jostle alongside imagery of corrupted nature and destroyed humanity. The highlight of this unholy alliance has to be the final twenty minutes in which Lena confronts the source of The Shimmer: an utterly alien lifeform beyond all comprehension and with unknowable motives. Her interaction with this creature is pure art – incorporating sound, colour, and movement, in an audacious sequence.
But what’s most unusual about a genre fair such Annihilation, is that the characters are intelligent, pragmatic individuals. They’re reminiscent of the sort of grounded, logical protagonists you’d find in a H.G.Wells novel; as opposed to the reactionary morons endemic in modern sci-fi who make every basic survival mistake and handle alien lifeforms with no precautions.