If Annihilation could be distilled into a single image, it would be that of a hand seen through a glass of water. Crystal clear, the water reflects precisely what is set in front of it, and, in this case, it’s a human hand. But, it’s a glass of water, circular in nature, and so the reflection is bisected—fractured if you will—and though you can see what is being reflected in the water, you can also see what is not being reflected. At first glance, your mind fills in the gaps of the image, but if you stare long enough, the more alien it all feels.
So it is with Annihilation, the latest from of writer/director Alex Garland. Based on the book by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation follows five female soldiers/scientists as they enter “The Shimmer,” an alien force growing organically along the U.S. eastern seaboard.
Some backstory: The Shimmer—so-called because it makes everything around it glisten with multiple colors and textures—came from outer space, crash landing in a lighthouse. A team of soldiers—we later learn many teams have entered The Shimmer—are sent in to explore. All but one dies, and the survivor, Kane (Oscar Isaac), returns home to his wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), less than whole and suffering severe internal hemorrhaging.
While en route to the hospital, government black-ops sequester the ambulance transporting Kane and Lena. The next day, Lena wakes in a government facility, Area X, and is briefed by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) about The Shimmer, Kane’s mission, and the new mission. Lena, a cellular biologist who also served in the army, joins the all-female mission to explore The Shimmer, desperate to know the cause of her husband’s effect.
But all of this is in the past tense and comes via interrogation by a HAZMAT-suited Benedict Wong. Whatever is in The Shimmer, or whatever The Shimmer is, spared Lena and only Lena. This is not a spoiler—what happens in The Shimmer is—so, to that point, we’ll disperse with description and move to impressions.
The key to Annihilation, if there is such a thing, lies in the attraction all five explorers (played by Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Leigh, and Portman) have toward The Shimmer. Like moths to a flame, each enters The Shimmer knowing it will likely ensure their destruction. Yet, they enter and enter they must. Plot-wise, they enter because The Shimmer is becoming harder and harder to be covered up by the government, but these women enter not to maintain a lie but to understand a truth.
In this regard, Annihilation succeeds, though there is something that fails to click for this viewer—which may easily be discovered in subsequent viewings. Annihilation rings truest in scenes depicting humanity. As Dr. Ventress explains, everyone seeks annihilation: some with addiction, some whittle away ideal marriages through infidelity, some abuse perfectly good jobs until they are terminated, others simply refuse to get out of their own way. Why? Because from annihilation comes absolution. You can hardly have one without the other.
Written and directed by Alex Garland
Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer
Produced by Eli Bush, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Scott Rudin
Starring: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, David Gyasi, Benedict Wong
Paramount Pictures, Rated R, Running time 120 minutes, Opens February 23, 2018