Annihilation is a modern master class in sci-fi slow burn

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Mar 2, 2018

Annihilation is not a sci-fi film for the restless mind. 

The latest project from Alex Garland is resemblant of what made some of his earlier sci-fi outings so wildly successful. 2007’s Sunshine was tinged with the sadness of a seemingly preordained fate for its dauntless crew. 2002’s 28 Days Later was riddled with suspense, playing on our fears of viral terror and infection. Annihilation, a script Garland very loosely adapted from author Jeff VanderMeer’s first installment of his Southern Reach trilogy, incorporates several of the best themes from his prior works. That constant sense of creeping dread, the ability to build tension even when we think we know the eventual future, the conflict of acceptance versus rejection of something foreign, and the blend of beautiful and terrifying visuals - it all comes together to make for one of the most absorbing science-fiction films in recent years.

Many of the more contemporary sci-fi movies have long neglected one of their best storytelling devices: a deliberately slower pace. It’s easy to establish a recognizable villain right from the start, cluing the audience in to the battle to come, but what happens when we don’t know what’s ahead? Genre classics like Alien and The Thing are perfect examples of this sort of tension-building when done well; the greater threat to an isolated group isn’t revealed straight away, but teased and hinted at instead, giving the audience brief yet ominous glimpses of the future. Annihilation promises much of the same, and the film differs somewhat from the source material in this regard. Where the book primarily focused on recounting the internal conflicts between the group of scientists sent to investigate a mysterious quarantine zone, the movie turns those threats outward. Suddenly, the biggest dangers don’t come from within, but from whatever might be lurking around the corner.

At first glance, the intrepid quintet of women on this latest expedition seem more than capable of protecting themselves. There’s paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez); physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson); anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny); psychiatrist Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh); and biologist-Army vet Lena (Natalie Portman), who joins the team in a somewhat last-minute effort (another variation from the book, which sees her character undergoing considerable training and preparation for their mission). They’re armed to the teeth, possessing every piece of equipment they could possibly need for communication with the outside world, and full of enough scientific smarts between them to potentially tackle any problem that comes their way. And yet we already know, via Lena’s post-mission debrief that occurs in periodic intervals, that they are doomed to fail. It only adds to the skulking unease the viewer experiences as they wait to find out how the group reaches the inevitable.

Lena is mostly driven, we learn, from the desire to uncover the truth about what happened to her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), the lone survivor from the previous odyssey into Area X. Her choice to keep her connection to the prior expedition a secret from the rest of the team ends up having precarious consequences when the other women begin experiencing mind-bending changes from exposure to “the Shimmer.” Anya in particular becomes increasingly unsettled by the sight of her fingerprints moving, and lashes out at the rest of the group in an attempt to come to grips with what’s genetically happening to her. The reasons are inexplicable, as so much of the Shimmer’s effects on the women are, but it’s easier for Anya to draw a connecting line between the mysteries that don’t make sense and the one truth they unearth about Lena’s ties to the one soldier who made it back home. Rodriguez’s performance throughout the movie is powerful and dynamic, pairing dark humor with the fearlessness and swagger of genre’s next great action heroine - but in one of the film’s tensest scenes, where a mutated bear perfectly mimics the dying screams of a team member, she is extraordinary to the last.

Anya’s more vocal denial of the Shimmer’s biological phenomenons is a drastic divergence from Josie’s quiet reception. Eventually, the group begins to fracture. Ventress makes the decision to go on ahead to the lighthouse, their end destination, but Josie lingers behind. She’s reached a level of acceptance that Lena herself is still struggling to come to grips with - the revelation that everything, sooner or later, becomes something entirely different in a place that consists of both the twisted and the alluring. Plants blossom out of the scars on Josie’s arms, parallel lines left behind from repeated self-harm, as she wanders off into the undiscovered. While her ultimate fate is more open-ended to the viewer, it’s easily deduced that the soft-spoken scientist has decided to surrender to the metamorphosis rather than continue to fight any longer. We witness what this actually looks like for Ventress firsthand once she makes it to the lighthouse in the third act. The mission leader, who earlier had been revealed to be suffering from cancer, gives herself up in order to gain ultimate understanding - and the end result is one of the most psychedelic and disturbing scenes of the entire film, where Lena comes face-to-face with the source of the Shimmer. The strange alien organisms that have made their way to Earth via meteor have no desire to harm, but their quest to evolve everything in their path to a more complex form of existence blurs the line between transformation and destruction.

Aesthetically, Annihilation looks unlike any other sci-fi film out there. The Shimmer itself evokes reminders of the rainbow in an oil slick, or the way a bubble refracts different colors into the eye when we catch it at the right angle. Cinematographer Rob Hardy uses light in similar ways, and the vibrant colors inside Area X are almost garish against the dark, muted uniforms of the expedition team. If there’s one thing the film has most in common with the book, it’s the unique visuals: plants that have sprouted up in the shape of human forms, tall ice-like structures sculpted into trees, deer with flowers sprouting from their antler-branches. These new hybrids are only intended to be glanced upon. There are other, more horrifying sights to be seen - the aforementioned bear, half-eyeless and with its skeleton visible through fur, chief among them. 

Annihilation probably won’t be for everyone. It’s challenging and subversive, takes lots of chances, plays fast and loose with the source material, and doesn’t answer nearly as many questions as one would expect. But there are a lot of different messages to glean, and the real beauty of this version of VanderMeer’s story is the number of divergent interpretations that will come out of its telling. Love it or hate it, Garland’s latest film will definitely give audiences something to discuss. Like its climactic scene where Lena stares into the blinding light of the unknown, Annihilation leaves the observer with a myriad of feelings: unsettled, captivated, curious, haunted - but ultimately, unable to look away.