As a member of the ever decreasing population who doesn’t stream films I thought I would never see Annhilation. On its release Paramount had no faith in Alex Garland‘s big budget follow up to Ex Machina (2014). I knew it was one to look out for so I did’t give up on a physical release coming along. Thankfully a few months ago it was released on old-school DVD format, where I continue to watch a lot of my films. The wait was truly worth every second that it was streamed on Amazon, probably still there too. It really do the film justice to be thrown to a hard drive in silicon valley to be played in small screens on the train. Like Roma (2018) these films need to be seen on the biggest screen you can find. I wish I could have found bigger than what I currently have. Nonetheless the world that Garland has created warrants a large screen setting to truly do it justice, allowing the audience to be lost within it. My mind is currently still trying to process what I’ve just seen, there are a lot I want to explore. So bear with me as I start to unpack it all.
Biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) for the past year has been living in a state of grief ever-since her solider husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) went missing during a mission. We meet her teaching a class that was beginning to look at cancerous cells. Note that all the little details are very important at this state. Garland is laying foundations of Lena’s world, how she perceives it, through the eyes of science. Throwing herself in her work she’s not allowed herself to begin to move on from Kanes now presumed death. And then out of nowhere he just appears in the bedroom and we are just supposed to accept him, his arrival is unexpected to say the least. From trailer she could have met him later on. He’s not all he seems, distant and uncommunicative, unwilling to open up, what has he been through, is this how his PTSD manifests itself? We don’t have time to ask as he’s rushed to hospital. It’s all happening too fast to really process for both Lena and the audience.
The action then slows down to a crawl when he’s hospitalised and she’s being questioned by psychologist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a cold emotionless woman who wants to know what happened to her husband, how he returned whilst others his team didn’t. All of this is told is flashback under quarantined interrogation by Lomax (Benedict Wong) that completely changes the structure of the film. We know that she’s the only one of a future mission to return from what is known as The Shimmer. Moving back and forth between the interrogation of the build up to and inside The Shimmer.
I was first reminded of Monsters (2010) when a journalist agrees to escort a tourist back home to her father. Working their way through an alien infested Mexico to cross a physical border into the United States. A more political layer has been applied to this film in the past few years. However You still have a quarantined area of land that has to be ventured. The Shimmer’s border is covered in a flowing forcefield that allows is but never releases people to cross. Nothing like the Mexican border that is being proposed. Where it exists already, families are broken up. The only aliens there are those who lack compassion for people to find a better life across the border.
Usually these missions in science fiction it’s the men who cross over, kitted out with guns sand ready to strike what’s ahead of them. Here all the men have been exhausted, is that an intention of Garland, is he bored of the all male teams, wanting to send an all female team in? Based on James Vandermeer’s book it surely makes for a change to be adapted for the screen. This brings up the recasting of some characters, an issue that is too deep to really get into here. It’s a symptom of how far Hollywood is still to go in truly representing races on-screen and being more faithful to the source materials it adapts. On a cinematic level it’s just refreshing to have women holding the guns, having the knowledge and going into the unknown. Showing that women are just as capable as men. Amy Adams proved that a few years ago as Linguist Louise Banks in Arrival (2016) these two films alone prove that women can lead a male dominated genre.
After Lena works her way onto the team that enter’s The Shimmer we start to understand what has been hidden from view for the past 3 years. An ever-growing expanse that is being transformed. What I can see as gene splicing. First appearances are an otherworldly paradise that fascinates Lena, taking samples. On further inspection it’s booby-trapped with creatures which have been thrown together, a cross between a crocodile and a shark. You might know kids who dream of such things, but to see them realised is another that you’d never show them. There’s a frightening imbalance to see how nature has been experimented with, almost corrupted. Beautiful on one level, frightening once you scratch the surface.
The all women team, lead strangely by the driven and cold Dr Ventress, who takes with her Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) who Lena grows close to. Followed by Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) who has a completely different agenda to the other women. Fascinated with how their kit reacts inside The Shimmer wanting to simply understand what’s going, maybe even communicate with whatever’s out there. Lena’s secret soon get’s out after they leave an abandoned army base, video footage begins to unravel things for her. She attempts to carry on with a level head in a world that doesn’t follow the normal laws of nature.
The more I saw of this world, I was both blown away by the imagery, the world building involved, whilst at other times it felt like an overly polished CGI world that felt false. The set dressing, or the subtler pieces of CGI were far more effective. Where we see the buildings covered in larger colourful mould I was more engaged in this world. As I got to the end of the film I began see wonder how much was made on the computer and in camera. Of course some scenes required CGI to allow the plot to continue, whilst others it was an overload that began to show its limitations.
The finale in The Shimmer begins to answer the questions that had been left unanswered. Had I just seen an alien race that was trying to communicate through quiet experimentation and duplication of life. Are we seeing that next stage in human evolution as suggested in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), hmm maybe not but the suggestion of a higher being is certainly there to be explored. It’s been a journey of self redemption for Lena who wanted to understand how her husband could have been lost. It’s an amazing search and rescue film that pushes that leans deeply into horror at times and lingers throughout. We’re left with what you can see to be a signature of Garlands, left unsettled by the ending with sense of uncertainty.
I’m grateful to Paramount for finally releasing this film on physical media, reversing a decision that showed a reluctance to believe in a film that had female leads, going into save men. I believe that was the main fear. Hopefully the onslaught of female centric films (be them poor remakes of male lead films, if only they get some half decent material in future) has lead to this change of heart. I enjoyed seeing these women kicking ass, it doesn’t matter if they are men or women, it’s the story that matters. Here we have a film that provokes, scares and entertains.