When Ex Machina Becomes Ex Astra
Cloaked in the nacreous blues, aquamarines, and purples of an expanding energy field of extraterrestrial origin, Annihilation takes its cues from the intellectual side of the science fiction ledger. At the same time, the film borrows not insignificantly from the horror column. The additive result delivers something like a cinematic hybrid of Stanley Kubrick’s cerebral 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ridley Scott’s visceral Alien. This film does not reach the heights of either of those well-regarded features, but it does carry the audience along on an eerie journey that’s worth taking.
Annihilation marks Alex Garland’s return behind the camera, following up his directorial debut in 2014, when he helmed the science-fiction thriller Ex Machina. As he did with his previous effort, he also pens the screenplay, although this time, rather than crafting an original story, he adapts the first volume of novelist Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. Mr. Garland’s first film, an independent feature with a narrow focus, also contrasts in another way: his second is a big-budget studio pic with a far greater scope. But despite their differing literary and cinematic pedigrees, Ex Machina and Annihilation have more in common than just their director. Both works largely focus on a small group of people in unusual circumstances, dealing in matters of hard science while also broaching and exploring metaphysical questions.
Annihilation begins roughly where it will end, with the debriefing, in quarantine, of a woman named Lena (Natalie Portman), a biology professor and former member of the U.S. Army. She tells the story of the film in flashback, though not always in chronological order. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who also served in the military, left on a mission nearly a year earlier and never returned. After mourning his presumed death, Lena eventually begins trying to move on, only for Kane to suddenly reappear at their house. He seems off in some way, not least of all because he can offer no explanation for where he’s been or how he’s come back. When he begins coughing up blood shortly after his unexpected arrival, Lena calls for an ambulance, but as the couple heads to the hospital, the military intercepts them and spirits them away to a secret base near the southern coast of the United States. As her husband drops into a coma, Lena learns from the base’s project leader, a psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), about the nature of Kane’s erstwhile mission, which launched from that location.
According to Ventress, an extraterrestrial object fell to Earth near a lighthouse in the region, causing some sort of shimmering electromagnetic field to begin expanding outward from the point of touchdown. In the time since, the effect has continued to grow, defying efforts to study it from without. Multiple military teams have ventured inside, seeking an understanding of its mechanism and purpose, but no one has returned—with the exception of Kane. Lena finds out that Ventress intends to lead a team of four women—the doctor herself, paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radeck (Tessa Thompson), and geomorphologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny)—into the alien phenomenon. Lena, wanting answers about what has happened to her husband, and qualified both because of her vocation as a biologist and because of her experience as a soldier, volunteers to join the expedition.
The five women enter the glistering field of shifting pastel colors and immediately lose time. After dreaming about recent events from her life, Lena wakes up in a tent to discover that days have passed since she and the team embarked on their mission. None of the women can recall anything that took place between the moment they entered the electromagnetic field and when they awoke in their tents.
From an artistic standpoint, the filmmaker’s choice to skip over the characters’ entry into the unexplained phenomenon makes sense. The audience could easily anticipate what would happen: the team will lose contact with the base—just as all the other expeditions had—they will find out that their equipment can provide them no immediate answers, and they will choose to continue on with their mission. Omitting all of that allows the film to surge forward and keep the audience engaged. With respect to the story, the loss of time and memory only serves to deepen the developing mystery.
In some regards, the Shimmer is the true star of Annihilation. It begins as an unknown and as a threat, having swallowed up all but one of the human beings who penetrated its expanding perimeter, and leaving the sole escapee at first disoriented, then unconscious and on the threshold of death. The strange field manifests from the outside as wholly foreign and thoroughly inexplicable, and that doesn’t change once Dr. Ventress and the others begin exploring it. The team encounters a changed landscape within the Shimmer, where unusual beauty and seemingly impossible dangers coexist.
In films of this type, it is oftentimes easy to see where the story will lead: to an advanced, nonhuman intelligence that has its sights set on Earth, perhaps as a wellspring of natural resources, or as a valuable tactical location, or as a goal to be won out of amoral or malicious intent. Annihilation plays into no such common tropes. It possesses its own enigmatic style, deploying its exploratory tale to investigate not only the physical existence of human beings, but their internal, emotional reality.
As Ventress leads her team deeper into the Shimmer, they face corporeal perils, but when they uncover evidence of what befell previous expeditions, they must also stare down their own fears and regrets. Annihilation unfolds, at least in part, as a meditation on change in general, and on self-destruction in particular—literal and figurative, societal and individual, physical and mental, realistic and emotional. It is no accident of the storytelling that the five women who make their way inside the Shimmer all harbor flaws, remorse, and emotional wounds brought about by various circumstances: the loss of a husband, the loss of a child, the diagnosis of terminal cancer, alcoholism, suicide attempts. “We’re all damaged goods here,” Sheppard notes at one point, and while she specifically means to include the members of their team, the subtext speaks to the universal human condition.
By degrees, the explorers come to understand the nature of the Shimmer—or at least the nature of its effects. It is possible for the audience to infer a sentience behind the events, but it is perhaps more terrifying to imagine something far simpler: survival of the fittest on a galactic scale, playing out on an insignificant little globe. The meteorite that initiated the Shimmer might not have carried intelligent life with it, or even been sent by advanced beings; rather, it could have merely brought to Earth new germs, or some sort of corrupted space-time, or a strand of mimicking, mutating DNA. Whatever the case, the results of its arrival appear durable and profound. The events that transpire raise questions about the essence of the self, about the line between creation and destruction, and about the morality of survival at all costs.
For all of its time spent wandering through the wilderness, Annihilation conjures a sense of claustrophobia. That develops partially as the result of the characters confronting chilling dangers, of the dubiousness of their quest, and of the alienness of what they encounter. It also arises from their peering inward; they search not just for answers about the Shimmer, but about their own lives, about choice and responsibility, about existence and mortality.
Production designer Mark Digby, with whom Mr. Garland collaborated on Ex Machina, creates a larger, more complex world in Annihilation, but one no less intimate. The sets and locations, dressed with alien touches by turns bizarre and beautiful, serve to separate the characters from the familiar, and thus to isolate them as strangers in a strange land. The visual effects reinforce the otherworldliness of the Shimmer and its segregating impact on Dr. Ventress and her team.
The film, while compelling, is not without flaws. The usually reliable Jennifer Jason Leigh slips into a one-note performance that, while perhaps understandable for her character in the particular circumstances of the film, makes it difficult to believe her position of authority in the story. Likewise, Oscar Isaac never varies very much, forestalling the audience from relating to his plight. On the other hand, Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriquez, and Tessa Thompson all deliver solidly in their roles.
Mr. Garland’s screenplay mostly works, even as it deviates from the source material. A few lapses of plausibility occasionally undermine the script, as when one character refuses to believe horrifying images recorded on a video camera, instead claiming that what she and the others see on-screen amounts to a trick of the light. Even if the reason for the denial stems from an understandable inability or unwillingness to accept the situation, it allows the audience to momentarily get out ahead of the story.
Similarly, the direction in large part works, though the choice to flatten two of the characters—Kane and Dr. Ventress—to the point of one-dimensionality does not help the film. In some ways, the entire cast of characters seems designed to lose substance, to fade into the background—in one case, literally—in support of the lead. In the end, Lena is left as the lone through line for the film, the one constant in a mutable universe—except that the denouement of Annihilation calls into doubt her identity as a reliable narrator. Even given the uncertainty that adds to the tale, it feels like too pat a conclusion to a script filled with so many questions.
Still, overall, as he did with Ex Machina, Mr. Garland crafts a science fiction feature that is smarter than most. It takes the audience on an intriguing excursion into the unknown that doesn’t give up its secrets easily—if at all. In this case, what happens isn’t as important as how it happens, and how the characters experience those events. Annihiliation’s plot is the draw, but its themes are what give the film its depth.
***¼ (out of *****)
©2018 David R. George III