Annihilation (2018) Annihilation (2018) ****

     Normally when I recommend things to people, it’s because they remind me of something else that those people like. I expect that’s how it is for most of you, too. But with Annihilation, it makes more sense to me to recommend it to those who were disappointed by what it reminds me of instead. This is the film for everybody who felt let down by Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi movies, Stalker and Solaris, the former especially. The premise here is mostly a direct cross between those two pictures, with an alien entity similar to the Solaris intelligence setting up shop on Earth and creating something very much like Stalker’s Zone. And like the Tarkovsky films, Annihilation is slow-paced, cerebral, ambiguous, and pessimistic at its core about the possibilities of mutual understanding between humans and any truly alien intelligence. But in contrast to Tarkovsky’s work in the genre, it shows rather than tells its philosophical concerns, it runs a completely reasonable two hours, and it doesn’t try to get away with merely alluding to wonders and terrors that never find their way onto the screen. Writer/director Alex Garland and co-writer Jeff VanderMeer (the latter of whom penned the source novel as well) also commendably remember how thin the line between wonder and terror can be.

     A bit more than three years ago, something out of space crash-landed at a lighthouse in Blackwater State Park (apparently a fictionalized version of Florida’s Blackwater River State Park, located about 20 miles farther south than the actual article). The extraterrestrial object brought with it an effect which the scientists studying it have dubbed “the Shimmer”— a field of atmospheric distortion impenetrable by any human sense, natural or artificial. Communication across the Shimmer is impossible, too, so that no remotely piloted machine can be used to investigate whatever is on the other side. The only thing for it is to send teams of observers through the disturbance to reconnoiter. Unfortunately, no one who’s done that in all the years of the Shimmer’s existence has ever returned, and there’s simply no way to know why. One might argue that the smart thing to do at this point is just to shrug our shoulders and leave the Shimmer alone apart from a watchful eye on its perimeter, but that won’t do at all. The area encompassed by the effect is slowly but steadily expanding, you see. It’s one thing to have a pocket universe or whatever blocking access to a few hundred square miles of uninhabited swampland, but it’ll be something else again when the Shimmer swallows Pensacola!

     Among those who vanished into the Shimmer was a US Army sergeant by the name of Kane (Oscar Isaac, from Ex Machina and Star Wars: The Force Awakens). The strange goings on in Blackwater are a state secret (the media cover story plausibly blames a deadly chemical spill for the interdict on travel into the park), so Kane was unable to tell his girlfriend, Lena (Natalie Portman, of Mars Attacks! and the Star Wars prequels)— a university biology professor specializing in pre-med, and an ex-soldier herself— where he was going or why. That was a year ago, and Lena has been a wreck ever since. Partly that’s just because of what she assumes to be her boyfriend’s death, but it’s also partly due to Lena’s now irresolvable guilt over her infidelity with a fellow professor (David Gyasi, from Interstellar and Cloud Atlas). Then one afternoon, Kane comes home. He says he remembers nothing, not only about his mission, but about anything at all before the moment when he peered through the doorway to his and Lena’s bedroom, and saw her there. It soon becomes apparent that he’s seriously ill on top of the amnesia— like coughing up blood and going into seizures ill. But en route to the hospital, Kane’s ambulance is waylaid by about a score of riot cops in armored SUVs, and Kane and Lena alike are spirited away to a place called Area X.

     Lena comes out from under the sedative which she was forcibly administered to find herself in some kind of quarantine setup, with armed guards visible through all four of the Plexiglas walls. The woman who comes to visit her soon thereafter introduces herself as Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, from Amityville: The Awakening and The Hitcher), and claims to be a psychologist. Once Ventress has satisfied herself that Lena has no idea in hell what’s going on here, she does something utterly unexpected— she explains. Ventress tells Lena about the Shimmer, about Kane’s role in attempting to discover what lies beyond it, about how she and her military partners have no more idea than Lena how Kane escaped or what’s wrong with him now beyond multiple inexplicable organ failures. She even takes Lena outside to look at the Shimmer, revealing in the process the approximate location of the Area X facility. And on the theory that Lena’s knowledge of oncology and microbiology might be of help in Kane’s treatment, she grants Lena access to the Area X infirmary, too.

     A day or two later, Lena makes some new friends. These are paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), geomorphologist Cass Sheppard (Sleepwalker’s Tuva Novotny), and physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson, from the remakes of The Initiation of Sarah and When a Stranger Calls), and they’re all about to become the next team to brave the inside of the Shimmer. Evidently Ventress is hoping that scientists might succeed where soldiers have thus far failed. The doctor will be leading this next venture in person, too; she’s tired of being the one to send other people to die (or to whatever other, weirder fate awaits inside the Shimmer), so this time she’s putting her own neck on the chopping block. After talking to these four courageous ladies, Lena decides that she needs to go along as well. She hasn’t been able to do anything for Kane in the lab, and there’s a good chance that a biologist would come in handy on Ventress’s trek. Ventress agrees.

     At first, what the women find within the Shimmer just looks like ordinary swampland. But the closer they get to the center of the phenomenon, the stranger things become. Lena and her companions experience inexplicable, days-long blackouts, and time seems to run at a different rate inside the Shimmer than out. Compasses don’t work, and although the team’s communications gear appears to be functioning normally, no signal sent seems to reach any destination. Most strikingly, nature within the Shimmer has run totally amok. It isn’t just a question of mutation, either, although there’s certainly plenty of that on display. Rather, it’s as if the organisms under the Shimmer’s influence are echoing each other— trees growing into the shapes of human bodies, deer sporting flowering branches instead of antlers, lichens aspiring to duplicate the structures of the things on which they grow. Some of these aberrations are benign and eerily beautiful, like the transparent-bodied salamanders with tails in fabulous profusion. Others are deadly and horrifying, like the skull-headed grizzly bear that screams in a human voice the last words of its victims. But none of them are as dangerous to the explorers as the Shimmer itself. Sooner or later, the alien force emanating from the lighthouse will begin doing to them what it’s already done to every other living thing in Blackwater State Park. In fact, isn’t that Anya’s tattoo impossibly replicated on the other women’s arms already? It also stands to reason that there’s a surprise or two waiting at the lighthouse, and that whatever the investigators find there will pose dangers of a whole new kind.

     I still haven’t made up my mind about what I think happens at the end of Annihilation. That’s a good thing, in case you weren’t sure. Giving away as little as possible here, the ending is open, its significance is ambiguous, and it turns out that Annihilation’s hole card was the Jack of Unreliable Narrators. We never learn for certain what, if anything, the alien presence at the core of the Shimmer is after on Earth, and there’s a better-than-fair chance that that’s the wrong question to be asking anyway— even though Annihilation is literally the story of an attempt to answer it. This is where the parallels with Solaris are starkest. If what the survivors of the expedition encounter at the lighthouse is in part an attempt at communication, it’s an attempt by something so unlike us that we may need to reevaluate what communication even means. If it’s something more sinister than that (and it might well be), it’s for damn sure nothing as simple as a bid for conquest or colonization as we understand those things.

     What I am certain of is that Annihilation is suffused throughout with something that’s been largely missing from mainstream science fiction movies for far too long, a sense of the vast and awesome strangeness of the universe that we inhabit. One of my favorite characteristics of the best and most ambitious sci-fi of the 50’s and 60’s is that it reveled in the majesty of the unknown. Whether they were successful or not at conveying that majesty, movies like Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey and TV shows like “Star Trek” and “The Outer Limits” took as their starting point the assumption that the frontiers of human knowledge and understanding were exciting both despite and because of the dangers inherent in operating beyond them. The idea that humans aren’t ready for what we’re going to find out there in space, or at the bottom of the sea, or in parallel dimensions, or wherever has remained a mainstay of sci-fi, of course, but the modern version of it is fearful. It’s “We’re not ready, so let’s just huddle here in our caves” rather than “We’re not ready, so let’s just do it and be legends.” What’s fascinating about Annihilation in this regard is that it’s fearful and undaunted at the same time. The worst effects of the Shimmer reach all the way into Thing-remake bio-horror territory, yet even then, there’s a kind of monstrous beauty at work, so that it seems not just understandable, but rational in a way when one explorer decides to embrace and welcome her transformation. That attitude interacts in all sorts of interesting ways with the ambiguous ending, with the Tarkovskian glumness about the possibilities of first contact, and with the general recognition among the investigators that they’re probably on a suicide mission.



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