Scientific theories play foil to Natalie Portman
Walking out of the theater after seeing “Annihilation,” I went through my normal checklist of what I do after seeing a movie that leaves me inspired.
- Call Dad.
- Talk about it with Dad.
He told me he feels like most science fiction seems to be for the fanboys now. He’s not the first to express the sentiment, but it stuck with me. Google “top sci-fi 2000-2018;” “Avatar,” “Inception” and “Interstellar” tend to take up most space at the top. These are invariably great films, but they rely on the power of human emotion more than scientific questioning in order to tell their respective stories.
The Hollywood machine is responsible for those films making hundreds of millions of dollars, and it is the reason why “Annihilation” won’t do that. However, this film is an anomaly in that it is not as concerned with its audience’s emotional buy-in as it is with its physical reaction to scientific conceptions and the world around us.
“Annihilation” follows Lena, a brilliant yet depressed biologist working at Johns Hopkins University. Depicted with expected grace from Natalie Portman, she confronts the reality that her husband has disappeared following one of the routine, covert, freelance missions he has undergone in his post-military career. After a year without contact, she finds herself thrust into a top-secret military operation monitoring a natural phenomenon in an unnamed swampy coastal town.
“The Shimmer,” as the military calls it, is an otherworldly aura resembling an oil bubble. Slowly growing from its origins on a lighthouse at the coastline, it is threatening to swallow everything in its path. Lena discovers that her husband is the first to return from it after a year inside, but he’s gravely ill and no one seems to know anything other than that time is running out. Psychologically drained, Lena joins a team of scientists on a reconnaissance mission to attempt an understanding of the menacing mass. What follows is an enigmatic two hours of mysterious discovery and reflection.
“Annihilation” is visually stunning while maintaining a horrific emptiness rarely established in film. “The Shimmer” is alien mainly in its beauty, mimicking an extraterrestrial understanding of the world laid in front of it. Vivid colors and mutations overwhelm the empty swamps and shorelines, the prismatic, bubbly roof casts magnificent rainbows of light in every reflection (a true feat of visual effect and color) and it clashes vibrantly against the ghostly skin tones of the drained scientific outfit. Blood and bone mingle with flowers and mold of a dozen different colors, and trees grow into human shapes and crystalline pyres all around them. It’s awe-inspiring world building from director Alex Garland.
The tangible fear in the air is conveyed with subtle touches from all the actresses at the center of the film (Gina Rodriquez, Tuva Novotny, and Tessa Thompson). Oscar Isaacs delivers a great crazed portrayal, as well, but Holly Hunter’s dry candor quietly does most of the film’s heavy lifting before spilling over in her Lynchian final scene. All of these personalities pit humanity against the force moving through the jungle while never stealing the spotlight from the true star: cell division. The basic tenet of biology binds the entire piece together and manages to build an existential tar pit that the crew is constantly seeing in new and horrifying ways as they all come to realize that life and death are the only real constants in our world and that everything in between is worth questioning.
While the film may be unapproachable for some due to its inherent horrors, its abstract scientific pontificating or even its empty nature, “Annihilation” feels like an instant sci-fi classic. Garland shovels a pathway between human drama and hard sci-fi without ever taking an unnatural turn for the ethos in his wonderful first time behind the wheel directing a major-budget release. The fantastic visuals, sound design and score beg for a viewing in theaters, and the weight of the beautiful rolling of the credits and the accompanying final thoughts and feelings kept me in my seat until the lights came on.