Annihilation: The Kind of Nuanced Film Hollywood Needs

Written by Madison Drew Daniels
Images courtesy of IMDB

Annihilation, the sophomore effort by acclaimed writer/director Alex Garland, is a uniquely crafted film that deserves attention. Many reviewers, myself included, are unsure if this is a great movie or a terrible movie.

Usually when such confusing polarity surrounds a film it is an indication that something special is happening. Readers might remember that Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, an amazing movie, was met with both boos and applause at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011.

Annihilation will certainly be a movie that you either get or don’t.

If you get it, the film is remarkably poignant in its imaginative and poetic portrayal of self destruction.

In her review over at Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastien says that Annihilation nails the complex reality of depression. To her, the film was a revelation. A depiction of herself on screen.

But if you don’t get it, and self destructive tendencies aren’t a part of your reality, Annihilation will leave you feeling nonplussed and unsettled.

The film itself is about Lena, played by Natalie Portman, who is an accomplished Biology Professor. She had previously served in the Army where she met her husband, Kane, played by Oscar Isaac.


Ok, maybe not a full spoiler, but elements of the plot will be discussed in the review. You’ve been warned.
Moving on…

It has been a year since Kane left on a classified mission. Lena has lived a year uncertain of his fate. Unsure if he is alive or dead. That is until he shows up one night at their home with no warning. From here it is revealed there is an extraterrestrial event dubbed The Shimmer happening in the swamps of Florida and it was Kane’s mission to explore it. He is the only thing to have ever made it out of The Shimmer alive.

Through some tense but fortuitous events, Lena and a now violently-ill Kane are taken to a compound at the edge of The Shimmer. After learning of its growth and mystery, Lena volunteers with a squad of female soldier scientists to enter The Shimmer.

Their mission is to make it to the center and stop its expansion. The bulk of the film is the team’s disorienting, horrifying, and sometimes beautiful exploration of The Shimmer.

The Shimmer as seen in 2018's Annihilation.
If I could explain The Shimmer, it was like Space-Age Soap combined with some really cool lighting effects. It also looks like it belongs in some modern art gallery for $15,000. I don’t what that says about modern art…but…yeah.

Everything that takes place in The Shimmer has the quality of a dream. It is simultaneously beautiful, surreal, ugly, and terrifying. As soon as Lena and her team break the boundary of The Shimmer, they lose three days of time and are immediately dissociated from reality.

Even we the viewer are never quite sure if what we see on screen is a faithful representation of reality. There is a strong possibility of an unreliable narrator as the entire film is being debriefed after her time in The Shimmer.

The film climaxes with one of the most creative and impressively imagined scenes visualizing self destruction I’ve ever seen. Viewers will want to come back to this scene again and again to figure out just what exactly is happening.

And in like fashion, the note that Annihilation ends on is equally confusing, unsettling, and curious.

To say that the film ends before it makes sense of its narrative would not be a lie. As I stated above, the reactions to this film have been polarizing. My sense is that Annihilation‘s fairly ambiguous narrative and ending are the cause of this.

Here’s why:

In the current Cinematic era that we live in, which is dominated by huge blockbuster films, the viewer doesn’t have to do any work when visiting the theater. When you go to see the latest Marvel or Star Wars movie, you don’t have to do much more than purchase your ticket and sit down to enjoy the film.

There is no thinking involved.

In fact if you think about certain aspects of some of these movies too much, they begin to break down and cease to make sense. So when a movie like Annihilation comes around that does literally the exact opposite, audiences and critics aren’t sure what to do with it.

At the end of the film, Garland doesn’t give you a nicely wrapped aesop with a bow tied on, he hands you a tangled, complex, and nuanced knot and is expecting you to go home and work on it. There was no moment that re-contextualized the entire film. No moment where you snap your fingers and say, “Oh! I get it!”

The movie simply is what it is and you have to do the work to gain anything from it.

Natalie Portman sits alone in shock as she recounts her memories of The Shimmer.
If the film ends and you’re sitting there looking like Natalie P in this picture, you are not alone.

It is no wonder that it hasn’t performed well in domestic box offices or that Paramount chose to partner with Netflix for a global release because they didn’t believe audiences would like it.

I love big budget blockbuster films more than most but one of the unintended side effects these movies have on our culture is the inability to critically think about what is on screen. Annihilation requires this of you.

It is a thematically metaphorical film built on the back of smaller themes and metaphors. Fractalization, self destruction, life, death, and metamorphoses are just a sample of the ideas that pervade and saturate Annihilation. The essential bits that make up one thing end up in another. The very essence of another thing is being corrupted and refracted into everything else.

Within The Shimmer emotions get imprinted from one being to the next, the human genome is refracted into plants creating twisted humanoid bushes, minds and memories become frayed, fractured, and crazed. The Shimmer acts as a living cancer on the land corrupting and refracting everything that enters it.

Nothing is left unaffected, including the movie itself.

The title– Annihilation— suggests this.

Garland’s film is an act of creative uncreation. It draws from a language of film, tropes, and images that have rippled, bounced, and refracted around Hollywood for generations.

For instance, Annihilation is based on a book with the same name, while also bearing an uncanny resemblance to Villeneuve’s 2016 Arrival, and having the fingerprints of Tarkovsky’s 1979 The Stalkers all over it.

Hell, there were some things that appeared on screen that looked like they were taken straight from a Miyazaki film.

The edges of the frame will blur occasionally and lense flare are pulled apart with prism like precision into a dazzling array of colors, further increasing the dreamlike quality of the film. Within the context of the story, all this refracting results in corruption and destruction.

Natalie Portman and her team prepare to enter The Shimmer in 2018's Annihilation.
This is no Girl Scouts outing. Although, the arguing after being outside for more than an hour is relatable.

Yes, beautiful things are created in this process.

It would be a shame to say nothing of undeniably gorgeous cinematography. But horrific and monstrous things are also created. Inside The Shimmer life’s own exuberance, it’s propensity for fecundity, chokes itself out existence; pure self annihilation. Many reviewers have rightly pointed out that this movie’s lack of answers creates a hollow and meaningless film. But rather than branding this a failure, I see this as an intentional decision on Garland’s part.

If the movie’s narrative is based around refraction, self destruction, and uncreation, then it shouldn’t create an answer for you. If it is a metaphor for the complexities of depression then it wouldn’t be true to itself if it did tie a bow on it for you.

For anyone who has experienced the strangeness of the human mind turning against itself, it is obvious that meaning is one of the first things to go. Meaning doesn’t have to be found because it is quite possible that meaning was never intended. Just as in depression, sometimes our desire to put meaning on our experience can prolong our pain.

Sometimes it just is what it is– plain and simple. Depression is a real thing and really sucks– there doesn’t have to be meaning behind it.

All things considered I applaud Garland’s risky sophomore effort. I still believe that his first film Ex Machina is stronger in a lot of ways, but Garland clearly has the guts to take on heady material without being afraid of leaving audiences behind.

If cinema is to survive we need more films like Annihilation.

While film is particularly good at providing us with escapist fantasies, its true strength lies in creating stories that resonate deeply with the human experience and force us, the viewer, to reexamine our lives and our relationships. This is what Annihilation has done for me.

Plus who doesn’t love good sci-fi?

Natalie Portman stars in Annihilation (2018), produced by Netflix and Paramount Pictures.
“I, for one, loved the film despite it scaring me sh*tless.” – Natalie Portman, probably.