CAPSULE: ANNIHILATION (2018)

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DIRECTED BY: Alex Garland

FEATURING: , Oscar Isaac,

PLOT: As her husband, the only survivor of an expedition into a bizarre phenomena referred to as the Shimmer, recuperates, a biologist enters the region in search of answers.

Still from Annihilation (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Novelist-turned filmmaker Alex Garland, who wrote the screenplay for Never Let Me Go before making his directing debut with the excellent feature Ex Machina, probably has a really weird movie in him somewhere. This one isn’t quite it—its ambiguities are just a bit too unambiguous—although it’s definitely an off-cadence step in the right direction.

COMMENTS: Without giving away much more of Annihilation than you will find in the trailer, the story involves a trip into a rapidly expanding zone (existing behind a border which looks like a soap bubble) in which Earth’s scientific laws—especially the laws of biology—have gone wacko. Inside the Shimmer, the exploratory team finds deer growing flowers from their antlers, crystalline trees sprouting on the beach, killer animals with unusual mutations, and gruesome videos detailing the misadventures of the previous expedition. (One of these provides the film’s most squirmworthy scene, a true test of the viewer’s intestinal fortitude.) The Shimmer is an extremely colorful world with rainbow colors and (feminine?) floral motifs. That said, I wasn’t always a fan of the film’s visuals, which seemed too unnatural, at the same time too clean and too soft, and sometimes needlessly intrusive (little prismatic sunlight beams distractingly filtering through the forest). Still, the look arguably gives the film a necessarily artificial sheen, and the flowing, fractal climax is well worth the wait for connoisseurs of acid trip visuals.

Annihilation glances at a couple of an science fiction themes: the enclosed “Shimmer” unavoidably recalls Stalker‘s mystical “Zone,” while the ambiguity of the ending is reminiscent of Solaris. It naturally nods at 2001: A Space Odyssey, the grandaddy of “psychedelic” sci-fi films, too. These are only touchstones, of course: contra Tarkovsky and Kubrick, the movie is modern Hollywood in its overall approach, maximalist in its flowery CGI, and it even includes action sequences and jump scares (and bankable stars like Portman and Isaac) as accommodations to commercial realities.  Whereas 2001 was a meditation on evolution on a macro (even a cosmic) scale, Annihilation draws its scientific impetus from inside, from cellular biology and the fundamentally unfair tricks it plays on us poor humans. Instead of 2001‘s telescope, Annihilation looks at the cosmic through a microscope. The title refers, among other things, to the concept of programmed cell death, the idea that our DNA is coded to self-destruct—a theme mirrored by the film’s psychological exploration of self-destructive personalities. The mutations found within the Shimmer are a sort of alt-science, alien alternative to our biological status quo. Scientifically speaking, they might as well be magic: no firm explanation is ever provided for either the source or motive of the mutations. It leaves you free to ponder questions like whether aliens were behind the phenomenon, why humans are programmed to die, and, curiously, why the last group of volunteers sent into the Shimmer are 100% female.

Annihilation is based on a series of novels by Jeff VanderMeer, but reportedly departs significantly from them (even courting a whitewashing controversy by changing the race of the protagonist). After a short theatrical run, it will play exclusively on Netflix, where it will debut internationally as early as March 7 in some markets (U.S. and Canadian dates are not yet known).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a compromised film, one caught awkwardly between its source material’s daring and its producers’ fears that someone, somewhere might not get it. ‘Be weirder!’ I occasionally grunted at the screen. At the same time, studio horror films starring Oscar winners are rarely this weird. Taken on its own terms, this Annihilation does offer rewards.”–Alan Scherstuhl, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

3 thoughts on “CAPSULE: ANNIHILATION (2018)”

  1. This was a great flick, mainly bc of the ending visuals/audio. My only complaint was its mainstream accomodations (not strange enough).

  2. if i recall correctly, DNA are {\slant not} programmed to self destruct. just as computers are not programmed to stop working (excepting planned obsolescence, which is fraud), but deteriorate over time, so called natural death/aging are caused by the deterioration of telomeres. damaged telomeres can cause mistakes in gene copying (during cellular reproduction), which can cause alterations in the behavior of processes dependent on which DNA sequence they are presented with, which can cause changes in bodily functions dependent on the behavior of those processes, which cause, et cetera, a lack of homeostasis, usually of the sort of subtle cumulative deteriorations, sometimes with larger / more potent/specific things like cancer,,.
    i don’t care about these sorts of mistakes for my own sake (well, for my own sake, but not directly), because i either understand what was meant, or look them up, or ignore them if i think i will not benefit from understanding, but for the sake of others who are more willing to take your word on things they don’t fully understand (i benefit from their proper understanding by lowering the crowding of my experience with things i do not want to experience, such as misunderstandings, unless they are humourous, but in my book, reality trumps humour, and for humour it can still be done intentionally, and intentional humour i have found is quite a bit more interesting and can be crafted into hilarities impossible to see in nature)
    p.s. didn’t know ambiguity’s peculiar to Solaris, thanks for the tip.

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