It’s taken me days to figure out how to talk about Annihilation. Alex Garland’s sci-fi follow-up to his 2015 Ex Machina left me reeling even hours after I left the theater. It’s been a long time since a movie has done that to me. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a movie best discussed with friends over drinks, but I’m going to write about it anyways. So crack a beer and settle in!
I love big studio blockbusters like Black Panther (5 stars – go see it!) just as much as the next person. But I’m always looking for a movie that will subvert my expectations or try something new. That’s probably the reason that I fell so in love with the science fiction genre. Science fiction allows the creator to write their own rules or break the existing ones whenever they want. The problem with this is that they generally don’t follow through on innovative endings. Instead they opt for conclusions that appeal to a broad range of audiences. This, while understandable for business reasons, is regrettable for the artistry of film.
Two prime examples of this include Interstellar and Arrival. Warning: I’m about to spoil both. Both films were hard sci-fi – my absolute favorite. For the most part the entire films were meticulously thought out and lavishly created. For two thirds of the films they crafted intricate stories revolving around those issues and the people navigating them. Then, inexplicably, they ended the films by waving the cinematic version of a magic wand in order to wrap everything up neatly.
For Interstellar it was a basic form of String Theory. String theory was super sexy in physics a decade or so ago but has largely dismissed (cue eye roll). Arrival more or less said, “think of time as this sheet of paper, linear… but if we bend the paper…” I’ve just grown tired of that particular plot point.
Both of those endings are perfectly appropriate and successful in their own right. But if you’re going to hype a movie as this great experience of visual imagery and intellectual exercise, please follow through on it. Good news though, Alex Garland got it right with Annihilation.
THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRETY OF ANNIHILATION.
Annihilation excels in two areas. First are the stunning visuals that at the same time make things seem so foreign but so familiar that the end result is blissfully disorienting. The second is Annihilation’s total disregard for traditional story-telling. Instead they focus more on making the audience ask what does it mean?
So in that case, the obvious question is: what does it mean?
Nothing! And that’s okay. In fact, it’s the whole point. And before you click away in frustration, here me out on this.
I think Garland coaxes you into the conclusion that what happens in Annihilation is the product of biological function and at its core that’s really all it is. Here’s how:
The opening sequence of the film sets it up nicely. A gorgeous tailing shot of a meteor crashing into the lighthouse before a jump cut takes you to a single cell dividing into two. There’s even some foreshadowing with a brief mention that Lena (Natalie Portman), a Johns Hopkins biology lecturer will be teaching a semester on cancer.
This dividing cell motif is cultivated abstractly in a scene where Lena and her solider husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) are sitting across the kitchen table from each other. Kane has arrived home unexpectedly from a mission that went longer than expected and was ruled so classified Lena was never given any update on his status, leading her to believe that he was killed in action.
Lena is pressing Kane for answers as to his 12-month absence. The camera is resting on the kitchen table, with each character looming to either side, and in the middle their hands together, refracted behind a water glass. As Lena’s frustration and curiosity grow as Kane seems unable or unwilling to explain, she slowly pulls her hands away. Behind the water glass, their hands look reminiscent of the two cells dividing under the microscope in Lena’s lecture.
This is all followed up by Kane suddenly coughing up blood and falling into violent, uncontrollable spasms. Long story short, Lena calls and ambulance to take Kane to the hospital. On the way it’s intercepted by a number of blacked out Suburbans. Special Forces soldiers pull Kane from the ambulance stick Lena with something that’s going to give her a massive hangover and carry them both off to a top secret location introduced as Area X: the observation station for a mysterious phenomenon known as The Shimmer. A place where many have gone in, and none have come out… except, we learn, Kane.
There’s a lot to be said about the middle act of the film and I really hate the idea of glossing over so much of the story, but this is already ballooning towards a length that could be called “too long.” I’ll briefly mention that there is the normal set up of a last-ditch expeditionary team of uniquely broken individuals. Each actress playing the members of the team (NAMES) give excellent and unique performances. If you’ve seen the trailers you know that there are some crazy things happening in The Shimmer and you’re not wrong.
It’s almost criminal to skip over the second act of this film and jump right to the end but I want to stay focused on the underlying theme of the film. The events in the second act are visually stunning and absolutely worth talking about, but they all ultimately help support the main goal of the movie. Maybe, if y’all want I can write a follow-up to talk about some of the more interesting set-pieces (I’m looking at you skull bear creature). Let me know in the comments.
Interspersed between scenes of Lena’s expeditionary team getting picked off one by one, the implacable Benedict Wong, wearing a full hazmat suit, stands in front of Lena trying to figure out why she alone has returned after months inside the shimmer. His questions vary enough to offer an avenue back towards the scenes mentioned above but consistently return to a central line of questioning. He drives the point home after Lena finishes relaying what exactly went down in the lighthouse by asking a single, strained question.
What did it want?
Lena looks up with a confused and aloof look on her face and simply says she doesn’t know.
Garland could have ended the film right here and I would have loved it. This pseudo-cliffhanger is exactly the type of subversion I look for in films like Annihilation. To my dismay, he kept going. I nearly groaned out loud.
What followed was the admittedly predictable reunion of Lena and Kane. Perhaps, even more predictable was the subtle revelation that, by all rights, the two “people” in that room together were not Lena and Kane.
The single thing that redeemed the ending and prevented it from following Interstellar or Arrival was that there was no further explanation. Garland offers us not a single word. No explanation of why or how they became whatever they are. Mercifully the move has no hint of the almost obligatory sequel to follow. No clue as to what the previous two hours of movie meant
Actually, that’s a lie. I’ve come to believe that the movie has been laying the groundwork for what it all means all along. Since our first introduction to Lena, the idea of biological creation through the action of destruction was always present. Equally constant is the fact that there is no singular meaning behind this biological process. It doesn’t need a reason or a cause. It just does.
Throughout the movie the characters were completely engrossed in figuring out what The Shimmer was, where it came from, what was happening inside, and why it was expanding. I mean, why else continue sending in teams despite the fact that almost no one returned?
It all means nothing in the end…
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter where the meteor came from. You could spend tons of time trying to figure out if The Shimmer was a religious event, alien attack, or some cosmic sneeze. You likely won’t get anywhere, but that’s okay. The film posits that the end result is the same regardless of the questions we, as humans, will inevitably ask.
The fact that Garland is capable of creating a movie despite the fact it disregards the main pillars of story-telling
Hell. It could be argued that Annihilation is less a story being told and more a visually striking example of existentialism. It’s not often you go to the movies and don’t get a story (in the traditional sense). That’s why Annihilation seemed so innovative to me. It’s also exactly the kind of creativity that restores my passion for movies and art in general.
So if for some reason you haven’t seen Annihilation yet but read all of this anyways, check it. Be sure to stay open to the idea that it’s not about anything in particular and cherish that fact. If you’ve already seen it, let me know what you thought about it. I’d love to hear everyone’s own thoughts on it!