Alex Garland follows Ex Machina with another thought-provoking science-fiction film, this time to tackle issues like depression and self-destruction


Annihilation (2018)

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?


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