This past summer I was in the middle of sweating through a road trip when I suddenly got into a sci-fi kick. A friend leant me a book, Lathe of Heaven, an entirely confusing and fascinating brain-churner, which I burnt through in an afternoon. I reread VALIS by Philip K Dick and was considering treading back into House Of Leaves before it was interrupted by an outdoor screening of The Fifth Element (I'll never not want to see that movie). After the show, I returned Lathe of Heaven to the friend while we walked back home. We were several beers deep when she started telling me about another book she'd lend me. She attempted to describe it but it was as if she was trying to remember a dream she once had. "I don't know, something happens, like there's this weird thing wrong with somewhere in Florida or something, and these researchers go in but none of them have names and they're all women and there are, like, pigs with people's faces I think." The next day she gave me the book Annihilation.
After only a few chapters I could understand how someone would have a hard time explaining it. It is entirely surreal, dreamlike, its concepts seemingly intangible and inaccessible to someone with an overly visual brain like myself. I'd catch myself wondering "How in the world could you film something like this?" and quickly decided it would never be done. Lo and behold, I was only halfway through when I heard that, not only was it being adapted to film, but Alex Garland was writing and directing it. I closed the book, I wanted Garland's version.
In a way it seems that Garland had the same idea. The book was unfilmable in its current iteration, so instead of adapting it directly, he chose to write his memory of it and its themes without re-reading. Jeff VanderMeer, the author of Annihilation and its subsequent sequels, discussed the adaptation with Garland and gave it his blessing, understanding that this was its own story.
And what a story.
The film begins with an image we've seen in several different ways; something comes crashing from space into our world. John Carpenter would be proud. The object crashes into a lighthouse on the coast of a Florida state reserve, and from it grows an iridescent, constantly morphing bubble. By the time Natalie Portman shows up, the bubble has consumed several miles of land and grows larger every day.
Natalie Portman plays Lena, a scientist who specializes in cancers. Lena's home life is in tatters: her husband, Kane, (played by the always welcome Oscar Isaac), hasn't returned from his deployment a year ago, and the guilt she feels during her affair with her co-worker in his absence is destroying her. She sits quietly in each room, attempts some DIY projects, and listens to "Helplessly Hoping" by Crosby, Stills, & Nash, a song which will mean something completely different by the end of the film. In the midst of her grief, depression, and self loathing, Kane appears in their home. He's confused, not sure how long he's been gone, where he's been, or how he got back. Lena's frustration with his vagaries quickly gives way to worry when he begins to bleed from his mouth. "I don't feel very well." Suddenly they're in a speeding ambulance, captured by military personnel, separated, and sedated. Lena wakes up in a military compound overseen by Dr. Ventress, played with ghostly restraint by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Just beyond the compound sits the growing bubble, dubbed The Shimmer by the scientists who have attempted to study it. Kane was a member of the most recent military expedition inside, and is so far the only one to return.
It doesn't take long for Lena to join up with the next expedition, a group led by Ventress which includes Josie, (Tessa Thompson), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), and Cass (Tuva Novotny). "Women?" Lena questions. "Scientists," they correct her. They've already tried sending military, why not try a new approach? And so they press on into what is almost certainly a suicide mission.
With the question of why each scientist would participate in something doomed to fail comes one of the films first big questions; Why do we seek self-destruction? Ventress believes we're biologically programed to, that its out of our will. From Cass we learn that each scientist is dealing with their own trauma. Josie cuts herself in order to feel anything, Anya is a drug abuser, Cass is still dealing with the grief of losing her young daughter to cancer, and Ventress is terminally ill herself. Then there's Lena, someone who doesn't understand why she makes the decisions to ruin her marriage that she does, but can't seem to stop herself. Maybe that's what caused Kane to begin the expedition to begin with? When he suddenly leaves Lena to ship out the man is transparent in his sorrow, in his frustration. But knowing later that he was fully ware of Lena's affair makes the scene all the more tragic. He knows what she'll do once he's gone, maybe it isn't worth coming back after all.
Inside the Shimmer we learn that the alien formation has caused all DNA to refract in on itself, creating new life otherwise impossible with our laws of nature. Several different flowers grow from the same stem, an albino alligator has developed teeth like a shark, a deer with flowers growing from its antlers bounds around with a duplicate deer. In ways these are beautiful images, but with them come seriously disconcerting questions and horrifying implications. DNA is not just refracted, but memories and matter seem to be as well. During the expedition, the group finds a house they can use for shelter. The only character who knows something is wrong with it is Lena; it's her house. Additionally on the first day they awake confused, realizing that none of them remember camping, and have evidently been there for 3 days already. Time, it seems, has also lost its meaning here.
But I would be amiss to leave out mention of some truly, utterly horrifying nightmare fuel this film creates. A video found in a compound shows the fate of the previous party, filled with body horror not seen in film since David Cronenberg was in his prime. Kane, looking like a shell of himself, helps to hold a soldier down while he opens his stomach, revealing that the man's insides are now crawling and slithering like snakes. It's an image seared into my mind, thanks as well to the extraordinary soundtrack by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow.
And the bear. Oh god that bear. Going back to watch the trailers, I was surprised to see they revealed glimpses of the bear scene. I'm so grateful that I had no idea it was coming, I can't remember the last time I gripped a theater seat so hard. I could swear that the moment the scene was done you could hear an audible relief wash through the audience. A bear, having recently killed a member of the group, has somehow adopted the sounds her her final screams. "Help me," a phrase cried so sorrowfully, so like the screams of an animal calling out as it's being killed, now coming from the mouth of this nightmarish bear, the skin on its face peeled away to expose a horrific skull. The bear doesn't eat people, it kills them, it's life now a constant loop of agony. The implications of who he's killed, Cass, are even worse. Her final moments of extreme pain and dread being soaked up by this bear, but also the memories of her daughter. Does this bear also grieve, now? Does it understand what it's grieving? Are its words, "Help me," only an echo of Cass' last moments, or is it all the bear can now feel?
A moment now, if I may, to call out some deserved praise to the acting on display here. Natalie Portman balances a challenging character, one who at all times is a scientist, a warrior, and a person seeking self-worth. There are moments of utter disbelief that she must suddenly cast off in order to take charge of a situation, and she pulls it off wonderfully. Particularly there's a sequence at the end that I cannot wrap my head around, one that seems impossible to direct, and yet she and Garland seem to have a connection most directors and actors would only dream of.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is enjoying something of a resurgence these days, and her Dr. Ventress is unlike anything she's done before. Ventress is sedate, having come to accept her fate, knowing that her insides are turning against themselves and will destroy her, and her thoughts and feelings mirror that acceptance beautifully. She's such a strange character, one who I would never have thought to write or direct, and her final moments of the film work perfectly for her character.
I've not seen Gina Rodriguez's show so I've gone in blind in terms of her acting, but I was blown away by the end. She has the most difficult character in the film, one who fights at an impossible truth which ultimately destroys her. It's so hard to play a character going insane, and we've seen it done horribly far more often than we've seen it done well. She has a scene I'll never forget, "But you're a liar," a line spoken with so much hurt, venom, and bullheaded clarity that it comes across as a threat. And what a threat.
I'm a newcomer to Tuva Novotny but she's welcome in anything I see after. She has slightly less to do than her counterparts but there's a scene of pure exposition which she manages to turn believable. Like Rodriguez, it's a scene that could easily have failed as it's merely pandering to the audience as well as Lena, but Novotny succeeds in taking it to another level.
But then there's Tessa Thompson, an actor who I'm so glad has been getting the attention and screen time that she deserves. Her character, Josie, keeps are arms covered to hide her scars. She fails to feel anything, so she inflicts pain on herself to remember that she's alive. When she speaks she seems far away, as if her voice is being thrown by someone else, like someone who feels her presence has been punished too many times to draw any more attention. Josie reminds me of far too many people I've known in my life, and that makes her fate all the more haunting.
Before the bear attack, the survivors hide out in a home surrounded by plants that have somehow grown into the shape of people. At first you may think that it is merely a reaction from the Shimmer, human DNA being refracted to change the way plants grow, but that assumption ends after the bear attack. Josie sits outside, her arms revealed, her scars sprouting tiny plants. She remembers the horrific night, Cass' final, horrifying moments being echoed in the bear for all time. When Ventress wants to face what's at the core of the Shimmer and Lena wants to fight it, Josie chooses to do neither. She leaves Lena, always a few steps too far out of sight, the buds from her scars now vines and flowers, and before we know it she's gone. All that's left are the plant people. These are not those who died screaming, these are not those who ran away, these are those who have submitted to the change the Shimmer would bring, to a different kind of existence. Maybe not all of them, maybe they didn't know what was happening to them before it was too late, but there's a part of me that sees this the same way you would see a group hold hands before an apocalyptic event, a group who would tell a child that it will be okay.
And this brings me to the ultimate arc of this film. I believe there are 3 stories here, one on its face, one on its sleeve, and one deeper still. On its face is the story of an alien who inhabits our world and changes it without any reason. The alien does not want, it has no goal, it isn't evil nor is it good, it is just different, its very existence threatening our laws of nature. The 2nd story it wears on its sleeve is that of cancer. The characters mention a few too many times how similar this event is to a cancerous organism, and several of the characters are personally dealing with cancer as well. It's a fair study, one that looks at cancer on a geological scale and wonders if looking at it this way may help us understand it more thoroughly, but it gives way to the 3rd story within the film; depression.
There's an argument to be made that the story we see on screen is not the story that happens, that the moment Kane leaves Lena to go to his final deployment the story ends and everything we see deals directly with Lena's struggle to come to terms with herself. Each of these characters who go into the Shimmer know that they are doomed, they even remark on the previous failed expeditions that "One of two things happened; either something killed them, or they went insane and killed each other." And yet they go anyway, because if they are all facets of depression, then they truly are all self-destructive. Cass goes out screaming, in a pain so extreme it echoes forever and haunts her comrades. Anya goes mad, turning a knife on her friends and accusing them of going behind her back to destroy her. Josie finds tranquility in the prospect of a new life and leaving behind one which did not agree with her, one which she has seen destroy too many people. Ventress becomes consumed with her efforts to understand a reason behind what is happening. For her there needs to be a reason, needs to be a thing she can point to and say "this, this is the problem."
But then there's Lena. Lena who's actively destroying her marriage, who hates the co-worker she's sleeping with almost as much as she hates herself. And when she finally comes face-to-face with the alien, shown as a refracted, featureless humanoid who mimics her every move, her battle with herself is clarified in full. Her attempts to evade the thing almost become an interpretive dance, this mimicking thing watching her and becoming her, seemingly wanting nothing, but the moment she tries to escape it it almost kills her. Over and over again she attempts to fight it, run from it, out-manoeuvre it, but each time she fails and is pulled back in, almost being destroyed in the process. It isn't until it learns too much about her that she can get away, when it learns the only thing she knows; self-destruction. And even then, even when it emotionlessly burns its world to the ground, even then she's changed. She's learned too much, learned that the Kane who returned from the Shimmer is a duplicate, that nothing is what it seems. She asks him "Are you Kane?" He answers "I don't think so. Are you Lena?" In a way she is and is not. It's a shame the film tampers its brilliance with a final "dun dun duuuun" moment that takes you out of the mystery, but forgetting that allows Kane's question to sink in and plant the seeds of a question Lena will struggle to answer.
I can't say I came out of the theater ready to recommend Annihilation to anyone. It was a lot, too much sometimes, to take in in such a short amount of time. The film is not without its flaws or lapses in logic. Certain lines are unnecessary, Benedict Wong's role as a mysterious scientist evaluating Lena after she returns is such a strange filmmaking decision and it screams "this is for the audience." I can understand the need for certain lines to benefit the average movie-goer, but when you've already got a film as challenging and frustrating as this, you really don't need to pander to an audience that isn't there. It's only within the past few weeks that I've been able to begin wrapping my head around how I feel about it. It doesn't deserve a number or Rotten Tomatoes percentage because of how strange it is and how it will almost certainly mean different things to different people, but what I do know is that I've not been able to stop thinking about it. That's what filmmaking and sci-fi is really about; planting a seed in us the way Kane does with Lena, keeping us up at night, asking friends and co-workers if they've seen it and what they thought, and wondering how the questions it presents will change us.