“Our bodies and our minds will be fragmented into their smallest parts until not one part remains: Annihilation.”
Just when you think you’re following scientific theory, gauging the phrase ‘DNA refracting’ and generally ‘get’ what the hell is going on in this film, it snatches that sense of smug satisfaction away and lures you into a deep, dark Geiger-esque hole in a lighthouse.
Lena (Natalie Portman) enters the Shimmer - a domed anomaly birthed from a meteor - after her soldier-cum-husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns from it a mentally hollow and physically unwell man. She’s joined by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Josie (Tessa Thompson), Anya (Gina Rodriguez) and Cass (Tuva Novotny); it’s revealed that all of these women have dark personal reasons for entering a self-described suicide mission that has claimed the lives of numerous squads before them, though I must say the reasons are only touched upon briefly and appear thin, but I digress. Soon after they enter the soapy walls of the Shimmer, they face mutations beyond human comprehension and Lena begins to solve the mystery of how Kane managed to get out of there alive.
There are plenty of moments of brilliance that left me absolutely silent; for example, the found footage of Kane slicing through his squad-mate’s abdomen only to reveal his intestines are whirling round and round like a spin cycle, and the last 15 minutes which features Lena facing the alien entity, trying to understand it while it simultaneously seeks to mimic her, a scene aided by a thudding electronic score that synchronises so perfectly to every figure’s movement that they feel like marionettes.
Alex Garland’s direction of the actresses particularly shines when Lena’s struggling to hide her secret and shame, and his ability to make expositional conversation seem natural, which Ventress is guilty of. The set design is wonderfully rich, the dreamlike haze drifting in and out depending on how far they are into the Shimmer. A haunting and particularly stunning shot was Kane’s charred body, sat cross legged against a halo of burnt wall; I couldn’t help but think of the Seated Buddha from Gandhara, and subsequently wondered if Garland and his artistic team thought about the acceptance of change and rebirth in Buddhism that Lena also comes to at the end. If it’s a coincidence, it’s certainly a happy one.
Overall, this is an enigmatic story that unravels into an experience rather than looking to deliver a satisfying answer that leaves you feeling bourgeois for understanding.
- Xiao Tang