“Annihilation” Is a Satisfying Alchemy of the Uncanny and the Beautiful

Natalie Portman as Lena, in “Annihilation”

It’s enough of a challenge to maintain a single tone throughout a film, whether it’s suspense, horror, moral seriousness, or comedy.  It takes a greater talent to shift between two moods seamlessly, as Alex Garland manages in only his second directorial effort, Annihilation.

At one point, Natalie Portman’s Lena (the story unfurls entirely from her perspective) tells her interrogator that her experiences as shown in the film were dreamlike, but not always nightmarish.  As a viewer, I felt similarly.  Lena’s explorations sometimes uncover otherworldly beauty, but at other times the onscreen action was so horrifying that I wanted to look away.

Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s Nebula Award-winning novel of the same name, Annihilation centers around Area X, a mysterious locale that’s arisen on America’s Atlantic coastline after an extraterrestrial object struck a lighthouse there.  Area X is also known as “the Shimmer,” because peering into it, colors and images refract as if through a soap bubble.

Stepping up to the Shimmer

Three years later, only one person has returned from multiple expeditions into the Shimmer, Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac).  A special ops military man, Kane disappeared one year ago, presumed dead until he returns unannounced to his home one afternoon.  With flattened affect and monotone speech, he can tell Lena nothing of his whereabouts for the past year, before he collapses into a coma.

With Kane lying near death in a top-secret facility bordering Area X, its director Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) fills Lena in on events of the past three years and the little known so far.  Rather than helplessly watch her husband, Lena – a prominent cell biologist – elects to join the next expedition.

After the failure of military-style missions, Dr. Ventress has chosen to make the next one more scientific in nature.  Ventress, a psychologist, will herself be a part, as one of the hypotheses about prior failures is that members go mad and turn on each other.  Joining Lena and Ventress will be a physicist, geomorphologist, and paramedic.  (True to the novel, but unfortunately for this adaptation, their characters stay comparatively undeveloped.)

Committing this synopsis to my laptop, I confess that there are elements that sound ludicrous and too coincidental to be plausible.  But the cinematic alchemy of story, visuals, sound, acting, and ideas washed away the implausibilities for me.

Despite its “flashback within flashback within flashback” structure, Annihilation’s narrative remains easy to follow, doubtlessly aided by editor Barney Pilling, who wove similar magic on the multiple eras depicted in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Jumping from Lena’s post-mission debriefing, back to her marital highs and lows, and into the mission itself, the film flows tidily.

Lena (Natalie Portman) and Kane (Oscar Isaac), shortly after his unexpected homecoming

To create Area X’s memorable visual palette, writer/director Alex Garland brought back the cinematographer from his first film, Ex Machina.  Rob Hardy’s work here is nothing short of spectacular.  The landscape’s transformation from the dull browns and greens of the marshland around the facility, to the jungle-like bright greens inside the Shimmer, is splendid to behold.  Within Area X, plant and animal life has strangely mutated, some lovely (multihued floral blossoms, lily-white deer that prance in unison) and some terrifying (which I won’t spoil by describing).

Garland likewise re-employed composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury for a score that heightens Annihilation’s strangeness.  Here again, you wouldn’t think a mix of acoustic guitar, ominously rising choral notes, and crunchy electronic sounds would work, but they unquestionably do, augmenting the film’s Lovecraftian uncanniness.

In addition, a Crosby, Stills, and Nash tune – “Helplessly Hoping” – plays in the background a couple of times.  The lyrics of “they are two alone/they are three together” deftly mirror Lena and Kane’s marriage.  Once three together, they were two alone before Kane’s departure on his mission, such that Lena’s embarkation is motivated by both love and regret.

As mentioned earlier, we don’t get to know the other characters as well as these two, but Annihilation’s story reveals that each member has been scarred by life’s vicissitudes in their own ways.  Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, and Jennifer Jason Leigh are all capable of conveying wide emotional range, but the dominant emotion for all of the actors here is a blunted loneliness.  Nonetheless, Portman communicates enough sadness, intellectual rigor, and grit to carry the film.

With Annihilation, Ex Machina, and the screenplay for Danny Boyle’s horror classic 28 Days Later, Alex Garland has made clear that he likes his science fiction tales to tackle weighty ideas, with a rather unflattering perception of human nature.  Ex Machina (my review is here) showed that when technical geniuses play god, they are as sadistic as the biblical god himself.  28 Days Later dealt with a humanity decimated by a rage virus, with an uninfected protagonist ultimately indistinguishable from the infected.

Jeff VanderMeer’s original novel, and the two subsequent books that together form the Southern Reach Trilogy, used the expanding Shimmer as a metaphor for global warming.  Garland’s screenplay hints at this parallel, but his primary symbolic interests lay elsewhere.

Lena’s scientific specialty is cell senescence, the reality that decay and death are inherently a part of our biology.  Garland takes this microscopic notion and amplifies it to the macro level.

A key line of dialogue in his screenplay is uttered by Dr. Ventress, who tells Lena that almost none of us commit suicide, but almost all of us self-destruct.  This plays out across the film, in the choices Lena makes in her marriage, and on the mission itself, where the behavior of its members proves deadlier than that of the aggressive mutated creatures in Area X.

In one flashback, Kane half-jokingly comments to Lena that human cell senescence may not be a bad thing for the world.  Considering the themes of Garland’s films so far, he seems to concur.

3.5 out of 5 stars

 

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