Around an hour into Annihiliation, a character asks Natalie Portman if she knows the difference between ‘suicide’ and ‘self destruct’. And then goes on to point out how ‘human beings are programmed to self destruct’ without even being fully aware of it. Philosophy like this is why one can’t be more thankful to the science fiction genre. The farther a story goes into the cosmos, the deeper it delves into the extra terrestrial – the more closely it introspects the primal nature of what it is to be human. Whether it is 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, A.I or Arrival – some of the best films under this umbrella have raised compelling questions that aid the mind-bending visuals.
Much like his masterful directorial debut in 2014’s Ex Machina, Alex Garland is on sure footing with Annihilation too. The film might have a core that oozes scientific mumbo-jumbo, but it unravels like a mystery and in the process, shines a light on the most deadly virus of all – human paranoia.
Introduced as a Cellular Biologist, Portman’s character Lena is shown discussing the disintegration of cells that ‘annihilate’ their original form to make way for two new organisms. Also, mourning the disappearance of her soldier husband (played by Oscar Isaac) for more than a year, one day she finds him mysteriously standing outside their bedroom. Unable to recollect how he got there or where he had been for his last mission, he soon develops health complications. And before you know it, both the husband and his wife are moved to a military facility in Area X. It exists right next to a strange phenmenon described as ‘The Shimmer’, which is slowly spreading. Anyone who goes in, never comes out.
Desperate to ‘cure’ her husband, Lena along with four other women decide to undertake this (apparent) one-way trip. Accompanied by a Psychiatrist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a Physicist (Tessa Thompson), a Paramedic (Gina Rodriguez) and a Geomorphologist (Tuva Novotny), the group investigates the source of this phenomenon, that began with a ‘flare’ in a lighthouse. They’ve only got a few days before ‘The Shimmer’ engulfs the facility and Lena’s husband with it.
To an extent, Annihilation reminded me of Denis Villenuve’s Arrival, where a lone woman undertakes a high-stakes mission for very personal reasons. While Amy Adams’ character finds a meaning to her life again after an unspeakable loss, Lena finds the only way to save a loved one is to undertake this journey to a place of no return.
Garland manages to make The Shimmer both visually exotic and evokes a sense of danger of the wild. He also drops a series of breadcrumbs in the form of abandoned camcorders, carefully preserved memory sticks and chilling footage from the earlier teams that ventured inside.
My biggest grouse with Paramount pictures (the studio behind the film) is its direct-to-Netflix strategy for the film. Ambitiously concieved with grand visuals as well as challenging themes, it’s apparent makers meant Annihilation for the big screen. While the wide release makes the film available to a large number of the audience across the world, some of its meditative quality is lost along the way.
Alex Garland’s latest film intelligently mutates into different organisms at different stages, much like the characters in it. And the intriguing payoff in the end, makes it a journey worth embarking on.
Annihilation is available for streaming on Netflix.