REVIEW: An “Annihilation” of What It Means to be Human

What does it mean to be human? Is it woven into our DNA, hardcoded in rows of As and Gs and Cs and Ts? And what makes our genes special, unlike those of, say, a shark or a deer or a tree? Annihilation seeks to answer these questions, while simultaneously answering none of them. Instead, it simply offers different perspectives on the nature of the crazy series of coincidences that lead to sentient life, on a platter of shiny purple CGI. With mostly decent acting. But somehow, it worms it way into your brain, and it won’t let go. It sticks with you, gripping with its shiny purple hands. And for the effect it leaves you with when you walk out alone, Annihilation is more than worth seeing.

This review is going to be as non-spoilery as possible, as this film really isn’t the same if you go into it already knowing where it’s going. (I can’t speak for the spoiler content of any of the links, however.) Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology professor and former soldier, studying the genetic mutations that cause cancer. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year when he returns home, acting strangely and quickly falling deathly ill. She discovers that he had been part of a top-secret mission to investigate the Shimmer, an environmental oddity that has been growing, covering ground now called Area X. Desperate to find out what’s killing him, she volunteers to join the next mission into Area X, alongside Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson), Cass (Tuva Novotny), and squad leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). But inside the Shimmer, the team and the people begin to fall apart, and things get… weird.

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But weird in the most breathtakingly beautiful ways.

It’s hard not to compare this film to director Alex Garland’s last film, Ex Machina. But if Ex Machina was psychological sci-fi for computer programmers, all clean white lines and chrome and advanced code like an Apple commercial, Annihilation is for biologists. It looks like the love child of Ex Machina and Stranger Things, the ropey, organic overgrowth of the latter crossed with the light and total exposure of the former; flowers bloom in saturated reds and pinks up trellises of branches, salt crystals grow and refract like trees, body horror is staged in tableaus worthy of Hannibal (both spoiler warning and gore warning for these two links), and the Shimmer itself is an oil-slick of rainbow across the entire landscape. In the film’s stunning climax, fractals turn the entire fabric of being inside out in vine-y, veiny hexagons of oily ink, as if weaving together light and darkness to create life. If there’s one thing unequivocal about Annihilation, it’s that it’s beautiful.

I want to touch on the diversity of the film’s cast, but only briefly. And with good reason — the movie, aside from a single line discussing the single-gender nature of the team, treats it as a non-issue, which is incredibly refreshing. Josie’s a tech-wizard physicist who happens to be black, and Anya’s a paramedic and a lesbian who happens to be Hispanic. For once, their race is never even addressed, and Anya’s sexuality is only mentioned to underscore the seriousness of their mission, not for any sort of Very Special Episode moment. Then again, in a bout of unfortunate miscommunications, later books in the series reveal that Lena is Asian, and Dr. Ventress is Native American, making Leigh and Portman’s roles unintended whitewashing. Furthermore, as it is now, the women of color serve as supporting roles for white women’s plotlines, albeit very fleshed-out supporting roles. If Lena was cast as an Asian woman, this sidelining of diverse characters’ storylines wouldn’t be an issue. Natalie Portman’s response to this revelation seemed even-handed, saying “We need more representation of Asians on film, of Hispanics on film, of blacks on film, women and particularly women of color, Native Americans. […] And I hope that begins to change, because I think everyone is becoming more conscious of it, which hopefully will make change.” But that aside, assuming no malicious intent, Annihilation does this aspect largely right.

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Sailing into the great unknown of diversity of casting, of characters, and of narratives.

Like many of Garland’s previous films—Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, and of course Ex MachinaAnnihilation‘s ending is obviously intended to be thought-provoking, particularly on the human condition. However, this one is weaker than most, as it’s unclear exactly what the audience is meant to be thinking about. Is it all an extended metaphor for cancer? Plausible, and definitely a comparison intentionally evoked, but unlikely. A musing on the human urge for self-destruction? Well, it’s definitely that. An exploration of the cyclical nature of life, death, and rebirth, from the cellular to the biospherical? Almost certainly, but that’s not enough. Still, Annihilation has a way of getting under your skin, so to say. And Lena at the end of the film, you might just walk out a changed (wo)man.

Annihilation: 4/5 (link to Letterboxd rating)

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