Alex Garland has been around for years working on various projects including novels (The Beach) and screenplays (Dredd). But it was his high grossing directorial debut in the highbrow science fiction tale Ex Machina that proved him a bankable creator. His follow up, Annihilation continues the intellectual platform and add layers and layers of mutating colour on top.
A comet has crashed into a lighthouse and left behind a warping barrier, like oil on water. Coined ‘the Shimmer’, this phenomenon has been slowly growing, taking over an ever-increasing radius of swampland and small towns. Every expedition the military has sent to investigate inside the shimmer has vanished without a trace. No radio signals. No GPS. Nothing. Yet Lena’s husband – missing from inside the Shimmer for over a year – suddenly appears at their home with no memory of how he got there or what he has been doing.
This intriguing set up is introduced in pieces in the first act. Annihilation isn’t a movie in a hurry to jump into set pieces. Instead, we are drip fed scant information, whilst being introduced to a wider cast including Tessa Thompson and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Lena, as a cellular biologist, teams up with other scientists to attempt yet another incursion into the quarantined zone. Before it gets too big to handle.
Garland does a fantastic job of disorienting us. Time jumps around, so just how long we spend inside the Shimmer is unclear. The light constantly refracts around everything, causing a disquieting smeared colour palette. Hints of wrongness slowly build. What begins as oddly mutated plants gradually develop into warped animals and unnatural explosions of colour. The soundtrack thrums with an undercurrent of unsettling horns and discordant electronica. Factor in the slowly frazzling cast and the journey of the movie is one that slowly digs in its claws and then drags you under.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a woman who is seeking the truth about her husband, yes. But underlying that is a general malaise and guilt, as Garland reveals bit by bit that perhaps her life wasn’t quite as happy as she remembers it being.
Dr. Ventress (Jason Leigh) may be leading the team but her determination to reach the lighthouse and source of the Shimmer is motivated by something else. The rest of the team are damaged souls with their own personal problems. These only bubble through occasionally but the tension ratchets up as the pressure of a place with no sense of direction or time takes its toll on their grip on sanity.
Peppered through the constant feeling of wrongness are some arty pieces combined with knuckle-whitening tension. Things that were once other things attack like the alligator with mutated teeth or the bear with deadly hunting technique. And once we get to the lighthouse itself the ‘light’ aspect is front and centre. A psychedelic display of colour takes over and whilst you could (with merit) argue that the movie goes full-on art school at this point, there is no denying that it is an effective culmination of the journey both the characters, and we as the audience, have gone on.
Annihilation is a thoughtful movie that is less about character interaction and more about leaving you with a strong sensation afterward. It tightrope walks between mystery and pretentious but never ceases to be engaging.
Words by Michael Record