Alex Garland follows Ex Machina with another thought-provoking science-fiction film, this time to tackle issues like depression and self-destruction
Written and directed by Alex Garland, based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac and Benedict Wong.
Annihilation, latest sci-fi from the fascinating novelist/screenwriter/director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) has very unsurprisingly met with problems even before being released. After a poorly-received test screening, it was apparently deemed too intellectual and complicated by a certain financier at Paramount who ordered changes to make it more palatable to the public — which involved changing the ending and making Natalie Portman’s character more likable.
Clashes like these can always be found when there is disparity between the intellectual ambitions for a film and the expectations of an average public accustomed to the lazy state of today’s Hollywood productions. In this case, it is nice to see that producer Scott Rudin sided with Garland and didn’t accept any notes to alter his film — although this led in the end to a deal with Netflix for international distribution online instead of in theaters.
Just like the best works of science fiction, Annihilation is more interested in exploring themes and ideas than in being an eye-candy soup of special effects full of action (a current trend that has even been affecting the new franchise of Star Trek movies). Based on the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, the plot follows cellular biologist Lena (Portman) who is being detained in a secret government facility and debriefed about an expedition from which she is the only one to be back alive. Telling in flashbacks the events that led her there, she starts when her husband — soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac) of the U.S. Army Special Forces — mysteriously showed up home after being missing on a classified mission for about a year.
Kane cannot remember anything that happened to him that entire time, and when he suddenly becomes very ill, a government security force intercepts the couple on their way to the hospital and brings them to “Area X,” located near an electromagnetic anomaly that has been expanding for three years and is called “the Shimmer.” No one could yet verify what is inside the Shimmer, since nobody who went in ever returned — except for Kane, who lies now in a coma. When Lena meets psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), she decides to join her in a new suicide expedition that includes paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radeck (Tessa Thompson), and geomorphologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny).
Divided into three distinct acts/chapters and working as an intriguing cross between Stalker (1979), Contact (1997) and The Descent (2005), Annihilation deserves praise for being a narrative centered on a group of intelligent women embarking on a mission to save the world. Instead of defining them by superficial traits, the film is able to develop the personalities and motivations of each of these characters as individuals trying to fill a void and find some meaning, making us care about what happens to them as they advance further and further towards their objective — and it is interesting to notice how it manages to make Anya’s growing desperation and anger sound natural and coherent with what we learn about the character.
Garland puts great value on subtlety, and I particularly love how he positions a glass of water in front of Lena and Kane’s holding hands to make them look fractured by the refracting light — a telling image that is rhymed later on when another glass of water flips the image of her hand while emphasizing her wedding ring. And even though the cinematography exaggerates a bit with its overuse of lens flares, this is compensated by the shifting colors in the Shimmer which create the surreal feel of being inside a soap bubble. Meanwhile, the art direction can be striking when showing “corruptions of form” that look like art installations and also a shimmering beach with trees that resemble something like crystallized grains of dandelion pollen.
But Garland, who wrote the script based on his memory of the novel (“like a dream of the book,” as he put it), is not just interested in the story’s compelling mystery but more importantly in the themes it explores. Employing the scenes that take place in the present as a source of nuance instead of exposition (and accepting the risk of killing the suspense by letting us know right away that everyone but Lena died in the mission), Garland deconstructs a marriage from the moment we first see Lena and Kane happy in bed (notice the warm color palette then), gradually revealing secrets that explain the true reason why Lena chose to join the mission.
For the fact is (and this may come as a spoiler to the most sensitive readers), while some fight or surrender to its effects, the Shimmer is only a magical prism that refracts, mirrors and exposes whatever is good or bad inside us — which, in this case, reminds me of another masterpiece by Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris (1972). Lena resists, but what she is actually denying is the painful recognition that she is the one to blame for sending her husband away.
And that is why the brilliant last shot of Annihilation — which made me think of it as a twisted sci-fi version of Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (2004) — is so tragic for what it says about depression, desolation and even ourselves as a self-destructive species, while also ironic when commenting on our unstoppable inclination for destroying what we love. In the end, are those two “survivors” going to find a way to understand each other?