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Non-Review Review: Annihilation

Annihilation is a science-fiction smorgasbord.

Early in the film, a group of scientists determine that the are of land which they have been sent to investigate has taken strange properties. Local plants and animals seem to have mutated and warped under the influence of some strange beings. Impossible hybrids stalk the landscape, exotic combinations of recognisable forms in order to create something uncanny and unsettling. In its own way, Annihilation feels self-aware.

The mouth of madness.

Alex Garland’s latest film is very much a hybrid itself, a synthesis of iconic science fiction elements, fused together to create something novel and exciting. Audience members will recognise a strand of DNA here, a stronger marker there. Even its harshest critic must concede that Annihilation has a broad palette; a dash of Stalker, a shade of Alien, a hint of Arrival, the slightest trace of Solaris, a nod towards The Thing, some 2001: A Space Odyssey for flavour. All these elements thrown together and mixed to create something eccentric and something intriguing.

Annihilation is a brainy high-energy imaginative science-fiction mixtape, and one both enticed and horrified by the idea that this is essentially the future culture.

“He was always throwing himself into his work.”

The plot of the movie is fairly familiar, the stock science-fiction narrative dating back to the fifties and beyond. Something has fallen to Earth. A team is sent to investigate. On their journey, they discover horror and wonder. A scientist named Lomax is interrogating the only survivor from the latest expedition into the so-called “Shimmer”, which began growing as soon as it arrived on Earth and threatened to consume the entire planet. He points out that it was destroying everything. The survivor responds, “It’s not destroying. It’s making something new.”

Perhaps this is cultural comment. Modern popular culture is largely defined by nostalgia; sequels and reboots, prequels and reimaginings. In particular, modern science-fiction seems dominated by established brands attempting leverage their cultural footprints; JJ Abrams reboot of Star Trek and Bryan Fuller’s prequel series Star Trek: Discovery, the “stand-alone” Star Wars films like Rogue One or Solo, the origin story of the Xenomorph in Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. To any passing observer, it might look like pop culture is eating itself.

Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not.

Alex Garland has positioned himself as one of the greatest science-fiction writers working in contemporary film. His filmography features some of the most important and defining science-fiction films of the twenty-first century; 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Ex Machina. Indeed, there are even shades of these stories blended into Annihilation; the military mission that gives way to fanaticism like in Sunshine, a sly and knowing nod to the ending of Ex Machina. It is a credit to Garland how smoothly the references to his own work fit alongside nods to Kubrick or Tarkovsky.

Annihilation suggests an alternative to the modern wave of science-fiction reboots and prequels, suggesting another direction for contemporary “mix tape” culture. Annihilation is not a cover version of an older and better song, instead sampling classic material and remixing in order to create a compelling and intriguing sound. It is too much to describe Annihilation as innovative or fresh, but it is invigourating. It takes a lot of the conventions and expectations of science-fiction cinema, and throws them together to create something new.

Once more unto the breach in reality.

Indeed, Annihilation is quite pointedly ambivalent about the “continuous mutation” experienced by the flora and fauna inside “the Shimmer.” The trailer plays up the more monstrous and nightmarish combinations, but the film also pauses to admire the beauty that can be found in this process of combination and collision. Annihilation acknowledges that fixating and mutating the past can have horrific consequences, but it also suggests that it can be exciting and compelling on its own terms.

Annihilation is effectively a combination of elements from a number of different science-fiction films. The idea of characters wandering alone into a world of weirdness where the laws of biology and physics have been suspended by something of possible extraterrestrial origin feels like an overt homage to Stalker. The fixation on doppelgangers and aliens that are fundamentally alien feels like a nod to Solaris. The film’s climax rather blatantly nods towards 2001. A female protagonist hunting grotesque and mutated “false births” evokes Alien.

Crystal clear.

However, Annihilation is arguably as much about science-fiction itself as it is about anything else. “The Shimmer” becomes a metaphor for the possibilities of the genre to reflect and distort the real world, to offer glimpses of things that are impossible but which are also profoundly true. “The light waves aren’t blocked; they’re refracted,” explains physicist Josie Radek of the phenomenon. “The shimmer is a prism, but it refracts everything. Not just light.” The idea is that even life itself is being filtered through a prism.

Indeed, this idea is suggested and foreshadowed even before the concept of “the Shimmer” is established. Early scenes place an emphasis on reflective surfaces. A key reunion between two individuals finds them holding hands behind a glass of water; the water serving to distort and bend the image so that it no longer looks like what it actually represents. What better metaphor could there be for the narrative utility and possibilities of the genre.

Not-so-Fantastic-Beasts.

More profoundly, though, Annihilation is a meditation on the process of death and change. It is perhaps the broadest of science-fiction allegories, the question of what it means to live and to be a person who is moving through the world. The characters (and undoubtedly the audience) are confused and disoriented by “the Shimmer”, but this confusion does not seem so unique and surreal. It is just an exaggeration of the kind of confusion that most people experience at various points in their lives.

At one point, Lena discovers that her husband has returned home from a classified mission. There is an awkwardness between them, a sense that whatever Kane experienced has changed him. “How long have you been back?” Lena asks. “I don’t know,” Kane responds. There is different energy between them. In terms of narrative, Annihilation suggests that “the Shimmer” is responsible. However, later revelations suggest a more grounded and mundane explanation for why a husband and wife might seem like stranger to one another.

Sink or swim.

After all, Kane didn’t just lose track of time inside the phenomenon. Lena seems to have difficulty keeping track of time in the real world. “How long exactly was your husband in the Shimmer?” asks Radek. “It’s hard to say, exactly,” Lena responds. Of course, it should not be hard to say; that is a simple, objectively verifiable fact and time only seems to be distorted inside the field. However, Annihilation repeatedly suggests that “the Shimmer” simply literalises what it feels like to move through the world.

In the world of Annihilation, to live is to change. This process of change is explicitly contrasted with death. Lena suggests that ageing and death is a biological mistake, speculating about a world where a “cell doesn’t grow old, it becomes immortal, keeps dividing, doesn’t die. We seeing ageing as a natural process, but it’s actually a fault in our genes.” In many ways, “the Shimmer” simply literalises this idea and carries it well past its logical extreme.

“I think we worked on Thor: The Dark World together.”

As she realises what happens to living organisms inside the strange event, Doctor Ventriss reflects, “We don’t reach the lighthouse soon, the person who started this journey won’t be the person who ends it.” This might be true of “the Shimmer” in an objective and biologically verifiable manner, but it is true of life in broader sense. Few people are truly the same when they live through profound and transformative experiences.

Indeed, this is perhaps the central conflict of the movie, the wrestling match between the fear of change and the certainty of death. The title of Annihilation does not refer to death, to the annihilation of the self. When Lena wonders why her husband would have taken a suicide mission, Ventriss objects to the definition. “As a psychologist, I’d say you’re confusing suicide with self-destruction,” she advises the grieving wife. “Almost none of us commit suicide. And almost all of us self-destruct.”

The shape of things to come.

Annihilation is a film about trying to impose a structure or meaning on those transformative experiences. “It came here for a reason,” Lomax insists of the phenomenon, even when there is little evidence to support any hypothesis about it. (“I don’t think it wants anything,” muses Lena when asked about its possible motivation.) The teams sent into “the Shimmer” seem to be looking for some external justification or reason for the  changes that they have endured in their lives. “Nobody volunteers for a mission like this if their life is in perfect harmony,” observes Sheppard.

Perhaps taking another cue from Stalker, which has been read as a metaphor for trying to preserve religious faith in a secular society, Annihilation teases the idea that religion is another mechanism of imposing order on what happened. Rhyming off possible explanations for the happening, Ventriss suggests, “A religious event? An extraterrestrial event? A higher dimension?” One of the characters is even named Sheppard. Crosses mark the boundary of the phenomenon. Messages are left “for those who follow.” The characters are all wandering towards a lighthouse.

Their ass is grass.

However, Annihilation remains a profoundly personal film. It is inherently subjective. Garland maintains an ethereal dreamlike quality throughout the film. Characters lose track of time, and can’t remember how they came to be where they are. When Lena describes encountering “duplicates of form” or “echoes”, Lomax asks, “Is it possible that these were hallucinations?” Lena concedes, “I wondered that myself.”

For all the scale and spectacle, Annihilation repeatedly argues that the true wonders exist inside individuals rather than in the wonders of space. “That I needed to know what’s inside the lighthouse,” observes Ventriss at one point. “But that moment has passed. It’s inside me now.” Over the course of the film, characters repeatedly rip themselves and others open, tearing themselves apart. This is a literal act, but also symbolic and metaphorical. Tellingly several characters are consumed by the blinding flash of phosphorous, suggesting epiphany.

A burning sense of wonder.

Annihilation is a fascinating and compelling piece of science-fiction allegory, one that understands the genre and its potential. It is a very broad and open film, one that suggests almost limitless possibilities and interpretations. The film undoubtedly owes a massive stylistic debt to countless earlier genre films, but it brings them together in a manner that serves its own fascinations and interests. Annihilation might be combining familiar elements, but it also creates something new.

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