Annihilation is for viewers with open wounds. It seeps in, and attempts its best to rewrite what it can, all in its own name. And it’s this infectious quality that makes Alex Garland’s film not so much breathe, but pulsate. It knows exactly what tune to play, entirely dismissive of the deaf ears it may fall upon. “Alienating” might be an appropriate word to describe Annihilation because the alienation feels incredibly intentional.
Simply put, while being a film depicting a group of female scientists entering into uncharted, fortean territory off the Florida coast, Annihilation is about mental illness. Lena, played by Natalie Portman, is a veteran turned biologist brought into what’s known as The Shimmer, a constantly expanding physics anomaly that rewrites the genetic code of all it encroaches upon. Lena, having her own personal, grief-driven ties to The Shimmer, embarks on a journey with four other professionals on what’s initially understood as a complete suicide mission, as no other parties have returned from their journey inside.
Under the umbrella of this psychological compulsion towards a suicide mission is where Annihilation sings, as Garland makes directorial master strokes of subtlety. What initially may be perceived as plodding, in terms of both storytelling and acting, becomes an acute understanding of the quiet trauma of suicidal depression and self destruction. The film starts incredibly slow, taking the time to fill empty rooms with an appropriate amount of angst, akin to Andrei Tarkovsky’s affinity for driving sequences in Solaris. Ambitiously, Garland pushes past this base understanding of initial trauma to explore the milieu of transformation past this depression.
This transformation reflects itself most boldly in the more sensory aspects of the film, that of cinematography, hue and score. Everything outside The Shimmer is homogenous in its uniformity; labs and office buildings are gray and lifeless, but comfortable, accompanied by familiar tones of acoustic guitar strings. These things are shown as houses but not homes, so to speak. Let me explain: within The Shimmer, even the most horrifying things, the most alien things, feel blissful, alive, real. Colors sing, locales are breathtaking and the facades expertly played by the lead actors are broken down entirely. All this works in devoted service to the film’s exploration of self destruction, of annihilation.
Portman herself is just as devoted. Her embodiment of not only Lena but Lena’s trauma echoes a sort of empathetic understanding of not only her character’s plight of grief but that of all those stricken by it. She come off as vain, cold, insular and selfish as she attempts to understand the emotive quality of the transformations taking place within her on a genetic level. So believable is the subtlety in her grief that I can expect those not familiar with it, in some capacity, to find themselves unable to connect with Portman and her character. This ethos extends itself to the supporting cast as well. Tessa Thompson plays Josie Radek, a doctor dealing with self harm, and her arc of numbness and acceptance is so incredibly harrowing that it moved me to tears.
Annihilation is far from indecipherable, as it counts on its ability to be understood. Like any great masterpiece, dismissal is inherent, but for those who enter The Shimmer, its effect is both numinous and real.
Justin Micallef (@justinrmicallef) is a critic who loves nothing ironically. Find his work at The Outhousers, Loser City, Detroit Music Magazine and your nearest bathroom stall.