In the climactic finale of Annihilation, there is a moment in which a shape-shifting alien bioclone with burning arms lovingly embraces a charred corpse in a lighthouse that has been struck by a meteor and overtaken by a mutated blight that threatens all life as we know it. Go ahead and read that sentence again if you have to. I dare you to try to come up with something so outlandish, so unsettling, so straight-up weird, much less deploy it at a crucial moment in a multimillion-dollar motion picture production. We live in a time where pretty much every sci-fi film with a budget this size (about $40 million) ends one way: explosions. The scripts all contain the same line: Big CGI Thing bursts into CGI flame. Heck, explosions probably typify the finale of most Hollywood films, sci-fi or otherwise, and the scripts for their inevitable sequels all contain the same line: Bigger CGI Thing bursts into bigger CGI flame.
But Annihilation goes a long way to assuaging the bitterness now associated with what the Hard Sci-Fi genre has threatened to become, and writer/director Alex Garland might just be the beacon of hope in this regard. It was already clear that Garland’s a formidable painter, but it’s still special to see a wider canvas filled with such vibrant colors. His debut directing gig Ex Machina knocked it out of the park (and is in some senses a superior film), but with Annihilation he gets more characters, more locations, more visual effects and more freedom to tell the story his way.
Thankfully, “his way” results in a fittingly-mutated hybrid of Arrival, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Carpenter’s The Thing, a bit of Cronenberg’s body horror à la The Fly, a bit of both Alien and Aliens, a bit of Lovecraft, Apocalypse Now, Persona, Kubrick’s 2001, Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Solaris, the Jeff VanderMeer novel from which Annihilation takes its basic story, and a dozen-odd additional potential influences. We could plunder the genetic makeup of the film in this way, isolating specific sequences and tracing their DNA to that of another film (like: is the screaming bear scene inspired by a viewing of The Revenant on a bad acid trip?); as with the multifaceted organic inhabitants of the mysterious Area X of Annihilation, though, what the film is now is more awesome to behold than the individual components could possibly suggest on their own.
These questions, of course, are best applied to the characters of the film; by extension, they’re best applied to humanity as a whole. What am I now? What was I before? Is “what I am now” what I am forever? If I can change, then what dictates the parameters of that change? If I can’t change…wait, why can’t there be change? Garland raises these questions in such a way that you feel his pen on the script throughout the film, which is not always a good thing in cinema. Seeing those wheels turning onscreen is usually tantamount either to screenwriting that cannot manage subtlety or studio-mandated re-writing that assumes the audience cannot manage subtlety. Being hit over the head with metaphors of the existential variety, picturing that line in the script that says insert audience interpretation here, takes away from the experience of connecting those dots without being told to do so.
Does Annihilation do that? Ex Machina flirted with it, and some of Garland’s previous work is more unsubtle. Though I haven’t read the VanderMeer source novel, the film script is available here and offers some insight. If you were as gobsmacked by that aforementioned alien-doppelgänger-on-fire sequence as I was, flip to that part of the script and notice how differently the scene plays out on the page. To reiterate, this is essentially the climax of the film. The intended interpretation is much more explicit in the original script, much more assertive in holding the audience’s hand and laying out a conundrum that can be read one way or the other. On the screen, though, the conundrum we’re ultimately presented with can likely be read in a hundred different ways. Annihilation is all the better for Garland’s willingness to stir provocation from ambiguity.
Which, of course, results in some people hating Annihilation. This negative review from Christopher Orr at The Atlantic is by turns compelling in its argument and frustrating in how much it seems to miss. He notes:
When the interrogators we met at the opening of the film later ask Lena asked what she thinks the alien force or intelligence she encountered may have wanted, she replies, “I’m not sure it wanted anything”—which is not a particularly compelling premise for a film.
Orr, along with many others who took that Screenwriting 101 class freshman year, is clinging to the notion that clarity of a character’s motivation is required for a clarity in the narrative. Firstly, Shakespeare’s Iago would beg to differ. Secondly, in dealing with something wholly alien, something other, Garland recognizes that human motivation simply doesn’t apply. Lastly, to note the obvious precedents in the rest of the genre that Orr seems to have ignored or forgotten, I can’t imagine the xenomorph of Alien or the It of It Follows would be anywhere near as terrifying if their motivations could be codified. On the contrary: they’re scary because they don’t seem to want anything at all. Does this make the entire argument against the film wrong? Of course not. But I’m sure glad Alex Garland wrote Annihilation instead of Christopher Orr.
So the writing is the star here. Also notable is the nearly-all-female cast, led by Natalie Portman and supported by the likes of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tessa Thompson. Leigh, who’s great as a motormouth in stuff like The Hudsucker Proxy and The Hateful Eight, is admittedly far less impactful playing a woman of few words in Annihilation. But it’s not her show, in any event. With the possible exception of Black Swan, this might be Portman’s best role. Stylistically, her acting method has always seemed…well, methodical. She’s disciplined, direct, often tense, and the characters she portrays usually benefit from the demeanor she exudes in this approach. But this intensity has never fit quite so well as it does in Annihilation, which is similarly systematic in its execution. And unlike her roles in, say, V for Vendetta, Portman brings a subtlety to this character that probably allows us to read more into her actions and into the film as a whole.
And boy, do people rise to the challenge in reading into the themes and allegory at hand. It’s about destruction! It’s about self-destruction! It’s about marriage! It’s about global warming! Here’s an impressively self-contradictory reading from Matt Goldberg at Collider that asserts things like “it’s about cancer” and “it’s clear within the first fifteen minutes that the premise is…what if the Earth…got cancer?” and “the movie is about is (sic) cancer, and you can see that consistently throughout” before wrapping everything up with an eleventh-hour admission that Annihilation could be about anything, not just cancer. Goldberg is…not wrong, I guess. I have my own ideas on what Annihilation might be about. But that’s my interpretation now. Is my experience with Annihilation now necessarily my experience with it forever? If it can change, then what dictates the parameters of that change? If it can’t change…wait, why can’t there be change?