UK/US, 2018, 115 minutes, Colour.
Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Benedict Wong, David Gyasi.
Directed by Alex Garland.
Annihilation was written and directed by Alex Garland who earlier had written such screenplays as The Beach. He moved into science-fiction with Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and Dredd. He received acclaim for his film about scientific and genetic engineering, Ex Machina.
With Annihilation he continues science-fiction interest, alien invasion, a kind of body snatching scenario, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes. While it is reminiscent of Body Snatcher films, there are also echoes of Arrival as well as of Bird Box (where the menace, described as beautiful, is not actually visualised as it is here with strange mutations in plants and animals, monstrous and destructive animals, an eventual parallel to be human creature).
Natalie Portman portrays a scientist, expert in cell development, formerly military, married to another military man who has been absent for a year. She has been grieving – and audiences later discovery she has been repenting of an affair. The husband, Oscar Isaac, suddenly reappears, is vague as to where he has been for the year, suffers convulsions, taken to a military hospital and his wife, Lena, interned.
The bulk of the film is an expedition into what is called the “Shimmer”, a mysterious colourful cloud coming down on and consuming all those who venture inside. An expedition is to be led by the psychologists, Dr Ventress, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Lena, not telling the other members of the expedition about her husband, becomes part of the expedition, venturing into the Shimmer, finding the mutations of plants and animals, menaced also by monsters, their feeling that their minds were disintegrating.
There are some horror movie moments and a climax where Lena sees her husband in a video, conflicts with Dr Fentress – but returns home and the framework of the film consists of scientists interrogating her.
There is no real explanation as to how the Shimmer took over, who are the aliens and what are their intentions, what is the nature of the annihilation, of individuals losing their identity as well as earth being transformed.
1. An apocalyptic narrative? An alien invasion? An experience of body-snatching?
2. The settings, contemporary, the military installation, interrogation rooms, nursing wards? The contrast with the “Shimmer”, the colour cloud from a distance, the ordinary terrain, the wrecks of buildings, the lighthouse and the subterranean cabin? The musical score?
3. The special effects, the Shimmer, appearance, the strange and colourful plants, the monstrous animals, action sequences and shooting, the finale in the subterranean cave, the parallel creature?
4. The title, as spoken by Dr Ventress, the intentions of the aliens, the taking over of humans, the taking over of earth? The nature of annihilation?
5. The opening, Lena in protection, her being interrogated, audience interest in what had happened to her? These sequences recurring? The flashbacks and the cumulative effect?
6. Lena, age and experience, scientist, her lectures about cells, the students, Daniel and his invitation to the meal – and the later flashbacks to her affair with him and breaking it off? Her husband’s absence, her grief, painting the bedroom, his sudden presence and return, his not being himself, not being able to say what happened to him, the bleeding and the convulsions, the ambulance, the police escort and his being taken? Lena herself being taken?
7. Lena in seclusion, the interview with Dr Ventress, psychologist? Discussions about her husband, her being shown the Shimmer, explanations? Her meeting the other members of the team, the characters, friendship, trauma that they had suffered? Her not telling them about her husband?
8. Dr Ventress, her personality, leading the mission, her terminal illness? Her career in vetting those who were to go into the Shimmer? Lena wanting to go, her motivations?
9. The expedition, the military garb, the weapons, the compass, the uncertainties, the mission to go to the lighthouse (and the audience seeing it struck by lightning initially)? The travel, the terrain, the puzzles about the cells, the plaints, the alligator and its menace, looking into its mouth, the same processes going on? Seeing the human outlines and the vegetation and colour?
10. The characters of the women, sharing their stories? Sharing their fears and uncertainties? Finding traces of the past expeditions? The threat of the alligator? The monstrous bear and its taking the member? Its coming back, the threat, with the dead woman’s voice, the sense of menace to the other women?
11. The tensions amongst the women themselves, sharing their stories? Seeing the video of Lena’s husband, cutting the flesh of the other soldier, the creature inside? Lena understanding more and more of what happened to her husband?
12. Shepherd and her anger, tying the other members up and gagging them? The threats? The scenarios on what was happening, their losing their individuality, her losing hers? The role of the beast, destroying her?
13. Josie, her background, pessimistic, unwilling to face death in the expedition, her going off by herself?
14. Dr Ventress, going by herself, being discovered inside the lighthouse, her alter ego? The conversation with Lena? Her transformation, the bright lights, the new creature?
15. Lena, continuing, going to the beach, going to the lighthouse, the seated skeleton, the video camera, her watching, her husband, the grenade in the explosion? The pursuit of Dr Ventress? The confrontation, the new creature, paralleling her in every movement?
16. Lena getting out, leaving behind the other self, going to the safety of the plant, the interrogations, the scientists wanting to know, to understand?
17. Her going to see her husband, his not being herself, her not being herself, the embrace? The transformation? Their annihilation – but who they would be?