For those who haven’t heard of the Southern Reach trilogy of novels by James VanderMeer, their story is based on the aftereffects of a mysterious object crashing into the Earth. In Annihilation, the first of the trilogy, a group of four women journey into a place called Area X, an expanding area surrounding the impact of the crash from which no explorers have returned. The movie by the same name stars Natalie Portman in the role of one of these women, the biologist, and follows her role in this journey. The biggest difference between the movie and the book is that the former doesn’t seem to have been created with the intention of being part of a trilogy–it isn’t so much adapted from the book as it is inspired by it.
Director Alex Garland doesn’t waste much time establishing the characters or their motivations before getting into the main story. Lena is a biologist whose husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), mysteriously disappeared during a top secret military assignment. Assuming he was dead after a year of no contact, she is surprised one day when he suddenly walks through the front door. He can’t offer much of an explanation for where he’s been or what he’s been doing for all this time, and upon the onset of a seizure, the couple are abducted by a military organization. After a series of revelations including finding out what Kane’s original mission was, Lena decides that she has to venture into the area dubbed the Shimmer surrounding the lighthouse crash site.
The imagery in this movie is amazing from beginning to end and it is unlike anything ever seen on the silver screen. There are beautiful flowers, horrific animals, and humans doing terrible things they wouldn’t normally do. Annihilation is completely unpredictable and keeps you guessing at what will happen next, what new thing has been created and why. It’s easy to draw some comparisons between this movie and horror/sci-fi classic Alien as both are female led and spectacularly create a constant sense of dread.
The way this movie sets itself apart is by presenting countless questions and never quite answering any of them. This is the true essence of Lovecraftian horror and Annihilation excels at it as Garland is more concerned with drawing terror from pairing frightening images with no explanation, much like how terrible things happen in real life. The story, which directly discusses such subjects as evolution, mutation, and personal demons, could be seen as an allegory for a number of different things like cancer and how humans affect the environments they inhabit with little regard to what already existed there. An ant similarly doesn’t have the capacity to understand why or how a house was built on top of its anthill.
It’s tough to grade works that don’t have any specific answers to posed questions and have open endings. The problem is they are often inaccessible and only cerebral people will really appreciate them. However, even cerebral movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner are considered classics. Being inaccessible isn’t necessary a problem, but it does become a detractor for those who just want to sit back and turn their brains off. Annihilation is a great movie for people who people who don’t mind being grossed out or mind-fucked, but others should probably tread lightly.