Annihilation (2018)

Annihilation first published by

Lena (Natalie Portman) is both a soldier and a scientist. This might, as the psychologist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) suggests, make Lena perfectly suited for the expedition that these two are undertaking with three other women: physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), geomorphologist Cassie Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and paramedic Anya Thoronsen (Gina Rodriguez). Yet it also marks a dichotomy in Lena, an internal conflict – as though she is, like the cells that she studies, a “dividing pair”. Similarly, though married to soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac), she was also part of a dividing pair in another sense: engaging in a self-loathing, self-destructive affair with fellow academic Daniel (David Gyasi), even before Kane had set off a year ago on a top secret mission (perhaps indeed that is why he had agreed to the mission in the first place). Kane has seemingly vanished, leaving Lena, guilt-ridden, grieving and unable to move on. When Kane suddenly returns, confused, not himself and desperately ill, Lena finds herself drawn to continue a mission from which only he has ever come back, in search of a way to mend Kane, their relationship, and herself. 

We know from the prologue to Alex Garland’s Annihilation, set after a disoriented Lena has herself somehow managed to return and is being debriefed by a man in a hazmat suit (Benedict Wong) on her experiences, that her own expedition has gone terribly wrong: Sheppard and Thoronsen are dead, and the fates of Radek and Ventress are unknown. The rest of the film is Lena’s account of what happened, as she and the other four women, all damaged by illness (physical or mental) or loss, agree to enter and explore an irrational space from which no one else, excepting Kane, has ever emerged.

“A religious event. An extraterrestrial event. A higher dimension. We have many theories, few facts.” This is how Ventress describes the shimmering zone, gradually expanding outward across swampland from the lighthouse at its centre. The five walk into this place with backpacks and uniforms, looking like the crew from the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters (2016) – and quickly lose/find themselves in a strange area where their various fields of expertise (biology, physics, psychology, etc.) become radically challenged. Which is to say that while Annihilation, drawn from the first novel in the 2014 ‘Southern Reach’ trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, formally belongs, much like Garland’s previous Ex Machina (2015), to the genre of science fiction, it unfolds in a realm where conventional science has ceased to operate, and where the characters’ journey, though peppered with horror tropes cribbed from Lake Placid (1999), Prophecy (1979) and The Thing (1982), is ultimately an internal one. For these incomplete women, all alienated from themselves, are exploring an ever-shifting world that refracts, duplicates and alters the forms and thoughts of anyone within it. In other words, this is a trip into the inner space of a hall of mirrors. It is the kind of allegorical, even spiritual science fiction found in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) and especially Stalker (1979), or more recently in Natasha Kermani’s Imitation Girl (2017), in which characters are on a quest to find their identity in alterity, their self in otherness, and their innermost being in the alien. 

The world that Garland has created here, constantly defamiliarised by impossible mutations, is a surreal place, natural seeming yet painted and sculpted with grotesque Dalí-esque flourishes and the odd flash of body horror. If ‘Area X’ drips with dread – and mostly the sort of dread that comes with change and mortality – it also shimmers with mystery and awe. For Annihilation is ultimately a cerebral work whose visual beauty and strangeness, whose heady sound design and whose sophisticated ideas prove Garland once more to be one of genre cinema’s finest living practitioners. It is just a pity that the film, originally produced by Paramount but then sold on to Netflix, will not be seen by UK audiences on the big screen – which is definitely where it belongs.

Summary: Garland’s cerebral SF offers a hallucinatory quest for the self in the other, where identity is as fluid as cellular change.

© Anton Bitel