Good science fiction leaves us with more questions than answers. Did any of those characters represent some sort of metaphor or social commentary? How did that director achieve those visuals? Then there’s great science fiction. Great science fiction causes us to feel uncertain about the things we think we know about the nature of the world. It reminds us that everything we’ve built, everything we use to measure this world and this life were solely created from a single perspective: human progress. But to assume that this perspective is shared throughout the rest of the universe is not only unfathomably narcissistic, it’s exceedingly naïve.
Great science fiction explores these other perspectives: how alien could something be? How different might other worlds and other dimensions look and feel from our own? Do physics work the same there? Does biology? Denis Villaneuve explored this with language and communication in Arrival (2016). His extraterrestrials frightened the world so much that they were forced to work together to find answers. Science, cooperation, and determination won out over military reaction.
(Read on at your own risk. There are spoilers and no life guard is on duty.)
In 2014, director Alex Garland gave us Ex Machina, and we questioned all that we knew about consciousness, sentience, and what it truly means to be human. By the end of that film, no one could say for sure if Ava was sincerely hostile and manipulative or if she simply wanted freedom above all else. This time around, he presents us with Annihiliation and we are challenged with the idea that biological life as we know it may not abide by the laws that we’ve conceived through our observations of it. Through our human perspective.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a professor of biology at Johns Hopkins University. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), was a soldier presumably KIA on a mysterious mission twelve months prior, or so Lena was led to believe. Through what seems like a miracle, he comes back to her as she’s painting the bedroom they once shared. After her emotions subside, she realizes that Kane is not himself — that he isn’t okay at all, actually. Flash forward to them racing through the streets in the back of an ambulance and Kane’s condition is worsening by the second. To make matters worse, the ambulance is forced to a halt by a shady government team who drugs Lena and takes them both away.
After awakening in a secured facility called the Southern Reach, Lena fields questions from a cynical psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) about Kane’s sudden return and his state of mind. She’s then given the rundown on the classified phenomenon codenamed “The Shimmer” or “Area X” — an area of land blanketed by a mysterious, oily shine in the air. Nothing that’s sent in ever returns, except for Kane.
Driven by a sense of obligation to her dying husband, Lena volunteers to join a team of four other scientists to journey into The Shimmer and use their academic minds and experience to find the source of the phenomenon which lies in a lighthouse at the epicenter of the unknown. Led by Dr. Ventress, herself, the team consists of physicist Jodie Radek (a wonderfully nuanced Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya Thorenson (Gina Rodriguez), and scientist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). As they make their way towards the lighthouse, peculiarities in the environment manifest themselves in stranger and stranger ways. Different plant species grow from the same vine. Separate types of animals have spliced DNA like some sort of mad science experiment gone awry. Reality as they know it begins to unravel and one by one the women are picked off by the monstrosities that become more frightening with each encounter, including a skull-faced bear that learns to mimic the screams of one of their fallen comrades, luring a distressed character out to her demise.
When Lena finally reaches the lighthouse, the truth about Kane’s strange return is made clear and she’s confronted by the entity that’s been manipulating the world inside The Shimmer: an inexplicable being that just… is. It harbors no animosity, only curiosity, mimicking Lena as if it wants to become her. And maybe it does. Our world and we who inhabit it are just as mysterious to it as it is to us. It is in this moment that we are gifted with a new perspective. One outside the confines of humanity.
In the end, we learn of the guilt which plagues Lena and which motivated her to join the expedition: an affair with her co-worker. Kane had found out and subsequently volunteered for what boiled down to being a suicide mission. For Lena, following in his footsteps was her way of attempting to atone for her betrayal. From this point of view, the jumbled biology within The Shimmer could represent the way the seed of mistrust, once thrust into an unsuspecting mind, could turn one’s world upside-down. In that place, nothing makes sense anymore, and, at the center of it all, we’re forced to confront ourselves and our deepest insecurities. After that, we either come out in one piece, or as a fragment of our former selves.
For each woman on the team, The Shimmer represents the self-destructive impulses inside their minds: Josie’s masochistic self-harming, Anya’s prior struggles with addiction and the paranoia that comes with it, Sheppard having had her daughter ripped away from her by Leukemia, and the cancer slowly eating its way through Dr. Ventress’ body.
With Annihilation, Garland creates a world where everything we thought we knew is ripped away; where reality and our laws of physics become reflected, refracted, and ultimately meaningless. An incredible cast is given a beautifully terrifying backdrop of strange flora and fauna, mutated and spliced and running amok. The unsettling tone of fear inside The Shimmer never lets up and drives the film forward until the very end.
Is reality everything we think it is? Or is our perspective limited by our biological, philosophical, and geological boundaries? If we are limited, how much are we unaware of? How would humanity, as a whole, react if the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, language, if the entire veil of the human perspective were suddenly ripped away? These are the types of questions that great science fiction leads us to ask. These are the questions that Annihilation will leave your mind reeling with.
Dir: Alex Garland
Scr: Alex Garland
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong
Prd: Eli Bush, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Scott Rudin
DOP: Rob Hardy
Music: Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury
Runtime: 115 mins
Annihilation will be released on Netflix on 12th March.