Watched the latest unsettling sci-fi mind-bender from Alex Garland, the writer/director of Ex Machina, that got dumped on Netflix for being “too complicated” for the wider audience. I’m sorry that I never got a chance to see it on the big screen, but good on the creative team for refusing to dumb it down.
Natalie Portman plays Lena, a former U.S. army soldier and now a college biology professor, mourning her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who has been gone on a secret mission and presumed dead. Then, almost a year later, he shows up at their house, pale and dead-eyed, with no memory of what happened, and soon Kane is coughing up blood and his body is shutting down. Lena and Kane are whisked away to a distant research facility, where Lena learns that Kane is the sole survivor of a team sent to investigate Area X – a swampy area surrounded by a visible rainbow-coloured “shimmer”. Other than Kane, manned missions into the zone produced no survivors, prompting assumptions that either something in the Shimmer kills people, or they simply go insane and kill each other. Worse of all, the Shimmer has been steadily expanding, and seems on course to eventually swallow up, well, the entire planet.
Anxious to understand what happened to her husband, Lena joins the all-female squad of scientists and soldiers, led by enigmatic Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who venture into the Shimmer. It’s revealed that all of the women who signed up for this suicide mission are broken or haunted in one way or another, including Lena for whom the mission is also a penance of sorts. If all goes according to plan, the team should make it to a lighthouse where the origin of the Shimmer presumably resides. Naturally, things don’t go according to the plan.
Like most films of this kind, Annihilation really comes to life once the team cross the threshold into the bizarre world behind the wall. The Shimmer looks like a magical fairy kingdom as imagined by H.R. Giger: pretty rainbow palette and profusion of bright flowers hide biological aberrations that’s stuff of sheer nightmares – mutated beasts and hideously twisted human remains. Other than one scene that maybe apes Giger’s iconic designs for the Alien series too much, this mix of beautiful and horrible is refreshingly unlike anything else I’ve seen. Human presence changes the Shimmer, but one also cannot remain stable and unchanged inside it. The horror elements are cranked up as the team’s trust and willingness to cooperate are stretched to their limit, then go snap.
There’s no easy way to sum up what Annihilation is “about”, especially since its spectacularly trippy, feverish climax provides more questions than answers and no doubt left some viewers infuriated. Mutation, grief and depression, self-destruction, contact with the unknown and unfathomable, fear of losing control over our bodies – there are many possible interpretations that may depend on an individual reading. Despite some very well-worn genre tropes, Annihilation still felt like a genuinely unique experience and I’m glad the makers didn’t compromise their vision in order to secure a theatrical release. Though it’s rather sad to think that this could well be the fate of all cerebral sci-fi fare that’s not obvious or mushy enough for the Hollywood executives.