‘Annihilation’: A Mixed Bag of Mystery

March 19, 2018

The new science fiction thriller Annihilation takes place mostly inside something called "the Shimmer," a mysterious phenomenon whose center seems to be a lighthouse struck by something from outer space. An alien craft? A meteor? Something else?

The government doesn't know because when they send people and drones in, nothing comes back. To make matters worse, the Shimmer (which has an unsettling sort of oily polychromatic sheen to it, like a giant bubble) is growing in size and there seems no way to stop it.

Actually, one person did come back, barely: a man named Kane, husband to Army-soldier-turned biologist Lena (Natalie Portman). He's soon hospitalized, near death from his experience. Lena volunteers to enter the zone with a group, partly out of curiosity and partly out of conviction that she can help save him. Whether by accident or design--it's never quite clear--the team is made up entirely of women (there's some reference to the fact that men have had little success inside, though why gender would change that isn't discussed). The group is led by surly psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), a geologist (Tuva Novotny), and a physicist (Tessa Thompson). Each of them brings their own expertise, backstory (or at least an outline of one, as much as the one-note characters are allowed), and corresponding personal problem to the mission.

For the first fifteen minutes of the film writer/director Alex Garland shoots Portman either backlit, in silhouette or in a haze. At first it seemed cinematic tic (not unlike J.J. Abram's affinity for lens flare overkill), but eventually I realized that it's to make the scenes inside the Shimmer less jarring, because they too are overlaid with a sort of faint rainbow glow. The film has elements of Stalker (the nearly three-hour 1979 Soviet film by Andrei Tarkovsky) and Contact (Jodie Foster in the film based on Carl Sagan's book).

The script does a good job of making the Shimmer's menaces murky, a situation I won't clarify here. What's going on is only gradually revealed, and it's a scientific as well as an existential answer. Part of it has to do with the nature of life, identity, and humanity. The world seems suited to us humans because we evolved in it; there is nothing special or essential about our specific life forms. Had Earth developed a different atmosphere, or the sun been a little closer or farther away, we might not have evolved into sentient animals capable of telling stories or making films. To the universe, an Earth without humans is perfectly acceptable--and was the case for virtually all of its 4.5 billion years of existence.

The film's special effects are striking and gorgeous, though its script fails to match its production values. The script is intentionally ambiguous about many things. If radio and other electronic signals don't work inside the Shimmer for whatever reason, there are low tech ways to communicate and find out what's going on inside the Bubble of No Return. The easiest would be to simply lay down an old-fashioned telephone, telegraph, or video cable as scouts progress into the interior (we see electronics working inside the Shimmer, so there's no reason a wired landline wouldn't work). Or even a series of cables could be set up with canisters (like the kind used at drive up windows at the bank) on pulleys. Information could be passed along with only a delay of an hour or two as the canisters zip back and forth through the porous barrier along a wire, updating each side on their progress and finding. Those in the Shimmer zone find themselves affected in several ways, including amnesia; oddly, upon realizing this the group doesn't take steps to record or preserve their findings and discoveries, either for themselves later on, or for the outside world should they make it back.

There are other plot holes as well, though some--perhaps most--of the film's unanswered questions are intentional. There are few clear, definitive answers at the end, so those who prefer neatly tied packages without loose ends are forewarned. I think it suits the plot; after all, a human experience with something that's profoundly alien (in the general sense if not the extraterrestrial sense) would almost certainly be incomprehensible. Alien contact in movies is usually benevolent or hostile, but what's going on inside the Shimmer is largely indifferent to humans. It's a refreshing and thought-provoking take on the genre, and Annihilation has some interesting ideas, but they are often mired in metaphors that never really gel.