Annihilation stars Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodiguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny, and is directed by Alex Garland, who wrote and directed the highly acclaimed Ex Machina from 2015, and he also wrote Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, Sunshine and The Beach.
Portman plays Lena, a biologist whose widowed to her husband Kane, played by Oscar Isaac, who was drafted to the Middle East and has been gone and unheard of for a year. When he returns home seemingly without memory and in need of hospitalisation, Lena is intercepted by a large research vessel investigating a large area known as The Shimmer. The Shimmer is a growing area of land, where some time ago, something from space (a meteor?) hit what was reported to be a lighthouse, and engulfed the whole area, and this shimmering envelope is spreading and engulfing further and further. Everyone who has so far gone into The Shimmer (military and scientists) have simply never returned or been heard of again. That is until the return of Kane. Given Lena's love for Kane and the possibility of bringing him back to health, she agrees to venture into The Shimmer and the lighthouse, along with a psychologist, an anthropologist, a paramedic and a physicist (played in order by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson) to find out what this area is, how to stop it, how to keep it safe etc.
This slow burn will take its time setting up characters, world, ideas and concepts, and will not hold your hand and walk you through it, however it certainly isn't, at least for me, completely abstract and ambiguous. I found it all to be reasonably accessible, although there's a hell of a lot in here to unpack in this mildly spoilery review.
So one of the main concepts and ideas that takes place in The Shimmer is that all biological DNA from all known species, suddenly has the ability to splice with one another, creating hybrids of many things, which on paper and on the surface sounds cheesy and dumb. "Let's make a movie where alligators splice with sharks, and the people have to fight them with big guns and explosions and chases!" But within context of the film, and the way it tackles this idea, it's creepy and eerie and morally, scientifically and environmentally... questionable.
One of my favourite scenes is when Tessa Thompson's character has her arms exposed for the first time, as through much of the film she has long sleeves to cover her scars. But she says to Lena "Ventress wants to face it, you want to fight it, but I want neither.". She then turns and walks off, revealing that DNA from plant life has taken over her, and she's come to simply accept it, and it sounds silly and hokey, but in execution it was eerie and mysterious, and there was profound beauty to it. The film's title is an odd one, because hearing it, it sounds like an action extravaganza, and even hearing the plot and seeing posters it looks it too. But Jennifer Jason Leigh's character outright says in the film, and to paraphrase "When the DNA and cells all split and merge and refract and divide, until there's simply no cells left, implosively cancelling everything out as they split and become smaller and smaller, it results in annihilation", which is where the title comes from.
Annihilation has similar elements to many other sci-fi films, all of which are very different, and which Annihilation combines into something very unique. There were moments where I was reminded of Alien, Predator, 2001, AI, Event Horizon in an almost identical scene in which the crew discovers videotapes of bizarre, aberrant and horrifying behaviour from the previous crew, as well as the conceptual horrors of exploring the unknown. There's Under the Skin in there, especially in the last 30 minutes, where it all becomes as abstract as you can get and deals with DNA splicing into clones and emulation and sacrifice.
So in the end Annihilation is a difficult film to review without either giving it all away in your explanation, which I probably have, or by making something that, in its execution, is artful and thought-provoking, but by describing it can sound lowbrow and unsophisticated. It's hard simply remembering all the ideas and threads and concepts, but it's an example of when sci-fi can be out there and complex, and I couldn't recommend it enough. It's definitely a think piece, where the story and concepts kind of outweigh the performances a little, but it's a journey fully worth taking. Brilliant to look at, visually interesting and different, there's a lot you can get out of it. It was one where I immediately wanted to see it again to further take it in, which is a rarity for these sorts of heady films, but it's even one I see myself revisiting more.
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