Through the advent of science we’ve been able to rationalize a number of processes and events that have happened (and continue to happen) regarding the development of life but we still haven’t been able to answer the “big questions.” Why is there life? Is it all a matter of dumb luck or was there some intelligent force out in the universe that caused the dominos to fall? And if so, why did this intelligent force set all of this into motion?
Writer-director Alex Garland indirectly addresses this profound dilemma regarding the meaning of life and the limitations of science in his latest film “Annihilation”-- a tense, tightly constructed and unexpectedly bonkers Sci fi thriller involving trippy extraterrestrial forces and genetic mutation. It doesn’t always work; the reliance on flashbacks can interrupt the narrative flow. Additionally, the film ends on a cheap cliffhanger but for the most part Garland effectively balances big ideas and visceral thrills, making for an entertaining and elusive Sci fi picture.
Loosely based on the book by Jeff VanderMeer, the film revolves around biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) who has been tasked with exploring and rationalizing the mysterious phenomenon known as The Shimmer, which seems to alter and refract every living organism it encounters. Numerous expeditions have attempted to figure out what exactly is going on but no one has returned, with the exception of Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who has a bad case of amnesia. Accompanying Lena is psychologist Dr. Ventress, (Jennifer Jason Leigh) paramedic Anya, (Gina Rodriguez) Physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson) and anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny). Once they pass through The Shimmer’s liquid-y barrier things get progressively freaky. The laws of nature are seemingly shattered before our eyes.
“Annihilation” is endlessly engrossing. Garland moves the action along at a meticulous, near perfect pacing. We’re placed firmly in the shoes of our all female crew as they try to make sense of the seemingly unnatural and increasingly bizarre occurrences within The Shimmer. The film is defined by eerie atmosphere and tension. It’s ambitious and meditative but also genuinely unsettling, providing a handful of disturbing body horror scenarios (at one point, a man’s intestines slither around in his torso like a snake) and hallucinogenic Sci fi images. All of this is heightened by a haunting, whirring soundscape that pulsates throughout every scene. Moment to moment, “Annihilation” is utterly hypnotic
Garland takes the time to develop his central characters, fleshing out their personal lives (fraught with tragedy and emotional damage) and giving them time on screen to interact with one another in between bouts of chaos. These aren’t one-dimensional women there simply to be bumped off by some malevolent force. Furthermore, Garland never betrays their intelligence. There’s a tendency for smart characters in Sci fi thrillers like this to inexplicably act like total idiots (I’m looking at you, “Prometheus”). “Annihilation” goes to some crazy places thematically and plot wise but the characters never make any frustratingly stupid mistakes.
Ultimately, the narrative reaches an ambiguous conclusion. The mechanics of The Shimmer itself are developed and partly explained but the movie never really accounts for why any of what’s happening is happening. This perplexing finale is a little unsatisfying but also fitting. Going back to what I discussed at the beginning of the review, perhaps there are certain phenomena’s that can’t be concretely explained using the traditional laws of nature and science. We probably wont discover the true meaning of life through scientific inquiry, just as Lena cannot definitively rationalize the enigmas within the bounds of The Shimmer. Garland leaves the audience with plenty to discuss and mull over.