There’s an early scene in writer/director Alex Garland’s new science fiction horror, Annihilation, that means a lot. It’s where Johns Hopkins University biologist professor Lena (Natalie Portman) is teaching a class on splitting cells. By use of a video projected on a classroom screen, she’s showing the students how cells separate and make perfect copies of themselves, and how they continue to separate, constantly making more copies, until what began as a single component in the middle of the monitor now crowds the entire display from corner to corner, and it will never stop.
Having entered the theatre with a vague idea of what happened in author Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, the moment with Lena and her students seems important, even though the scene itself comes across less as a signpost to any future plot development and more of a way of introducing us to what her character does at Johns Hopkins. Already, because of the film’s established slow rhythm, you’re getting the sense that before things take off, this is going to be more the thinking man’s world of sci-fi, its tone not altogether unlike 2016’s Arrival, rather than a more obvious style of storytelling. It’s going to take effort to piece things together. That was already made clear from the opening scene of Lena sitting in a stark, clinically clean interrogation room, questioned by a man in a decontamination suit, clearly protecting himself from a virus Lena may or may not be carrying.
When asked, “What did you eat?” Lena frowns, pauses, thinks further, then looks up. “I don’t remember eating.” Wherever the film is going to take us, we can tell a few things from this opening exchange; the adventure has already occurred, so whatever has happened is going to be revealed in a series of flashbacks; the style is going to be slow, indicated by the lengthy, thoughtful pauses between the interrogator’s question and Lena’s responses; and, whatever treacherous journey, or expedition Lena took, clearly she’s the lone survivor.
There’s a lot to piece together in the first act, long before any expedition takes place. Besides that moment in the interrogation cell, we learn that Lena’s husband, Kane (Oscar Issac) has been missing for a year; there’s a terse exchange at the university between a man called Daniel (David Gyasi) and Lena, indicating an intimate relationship that is no longer working; and while Lena is spending time at home alone, listening to Crosby, Stills, and Nash sing Helplessly Hoping at full volume while brooding over the memory of her husband, Kane suddenly walks into the room.
Lena is overcome with emotion at her husband’s sudden return, but Kane is cold, emotionless, and has no clue how he turned up at the bottom of the stairs or where he’s been for the past twelve months. He’s like a pod person, escaped from Invasions of the Body Snatchers. But there’s more. Kane is sick and suddenly needs urgent, medical attention. Yet, on the way to the hospital, the ambulance carrying both him and Lena is intercepted by a government swat team, heavily armed, who force both Lena and Kane out of the vehicle and into their own vans, where they are then whisked away.
But perhaps the most important moment of all is witnessing a falling meteor that enters the atmosphere. It shoots by the camera and hits the base of a lighthouse. There’s an explosion, but instead of a disaster movie styled burst of brick shattering the landscape, the moment of impact seems more like an unnatural flash of light, with the lighthouse left intact.
What follows after seeing all of these fragmented pieces of narrative is an expedition, told in flashbacks to the interrogator wearing the hazardous material suit. That fallen meteor created a no-go zone, referred to as Area X, a patch of land that appears to be mutating and literally changing the landscape. Worse, it’s spreading out, with no human understanding of what it is or how it can be stopped. Lena’s husband went in there with a team and was lost for more than a year. Now he’s returned, damaged, alone, with no knowledge of what happened, and suffering multiple organ failure and massive internal bleeding. And now it’s Lena’s turn to go in. She wants to know what happened to her husband. With a feeling of having nothing to lose, and with seven year’s experience in the military, she becomes part of a five woman expedition team made up of a scientist, engineers, a biologist, and a psychotherapist. They need to go into the middle of Area X, find that lighthouse, and collect as much data as possible.
When seen from afar, the damaged area near the coastline gives off a shimmering light effect, which is why the mutated region is referred to as The Shimmer. Imagine a rainbow melting in slow-motion, or the greasy wax of a multi-colored candle slowly sliding down the side of a window. That’s what it looks like around the barrier. When the team, armed with automatic rifles and carrying thick backpacks enter The Shimmer, it’s like stepping into a prism.
Once inside, the film’s visuals have a wildly imaginative, dreamy beauty to them, but it’s a beauty fraught with danger as mutated bears and albino alligators with shark teeth attack and kill. In addition to the monster-movie conventions of peril, the women discover their communications equipment doesn’t work, the compass is all over the place, and they’re forgetting how long they’ve been inside. It’s not only the landscape or the creatures that have become effected, the team’s own bodies and minds are now in constant flux.
Annihilation is going to test the patience of audiences. It may even test the patience of those who enjoyed the trilogy of books. When Garland wrote the screenplay he based it on the first novel only, not knowing there were two more, and structured the piece as a stand-alone. Also, it’s only loosely based on the book. He read it once, then wrote the screenplay without ever revisiting the story, adapting the work as though it was something he dreamed. There are no names in the book, but characters are given them here. Plus, several men from that original team returned back, but the film streamlines it down to only Lena’s husband.
When the women enter the mutated region, with their heavy equipment and weaponry, they look like a cross between the ladies from the Ghostbusters remake and the astronauts from Alien stepping into the alien ship, treading carefully, always on the look out, and finding monsters along the way. The alligator attack is edge-of-your-seat exciting in the traditional monster movie way, while the mutated bear sequence is horrifically brutal. But what may put mainstream audiences out of sorts, other than the overall slow tone and the art-house pace of an expensive looking independent movie, is the lack of clarity when it comes to explaining things.
It’s always good when a film pushes the regular boundaries and wants to make you think, to work things out for yourself, and there’s a point in Annihilation where, with a few blank moments still to fill, you kind of get it. That earlier scene of seeing cells split and replicating really helps. But it’s the final few seconds that annoys, a moment tagged on to close the film. It teases without making sense, flirting with the notion of a sequel, but not really promising one. It also brings into question everything that came before. Ultimately, it feels cheap where the only deserving response is either huh? or a groan. Like the mutating cells, word of mouth from opening weekend audiences will spread, and they’re not going to be kind.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 115 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)