Annihilation evokes two formative stories in my own life, two stories that linger in my mind as defining experiences. The first is the creation/fall/redemption story that runs through The Bible; the second is Andrei Tarkovsky’s haunting film Stalker. The three stories all pivot around a moment of corruption and a distortion of reality.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a brilliant botanist who faces grief when her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) disappears on a covert mission. A year later Kane shows up with a strange disease and after the couple is locked up in a secure government facility, Lena discovers that there is a large zone of unnatural occurrences from which no one has returned…except her husband. The next mission involves a group of scientists: Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (Tessa Thompson) led by a stern Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Lena’s specialty is cellular biology and her interest is in how humanity itself seems pre-programmed to die. Something within nature reeks of destruction and degradation. And this is considered a part of natural law, that there is something inherently destructive and violent about the world. That, in a sense, the world is constantly being un-created. Lena concludes that if God made the world, he made a mistake on the most basic cellular level.
Once in contact with the zone, memories become fuzzy, extraordinary, inexplicable flora and fauna are discovered. The world is both beautifully mesmerizing and yet alien and wrong. Here as the mystery unfolds, it becomes clear that something challenges nature itself and pokes at the fabric of reality. The zone is beautiful and mysterious while also dangerous and destructive.
I’m reminded a lot of the first book of The Bible–Genesis–when watching this movie because it both evokes the struggle of the curse under sin, a world twisted and tainted by evil. As the journey continues, I can’t help but see the zone as a twisted Eden. There’s a sense of going deeper and deeper into this garden, one where a lighthouse stands as a beacon of the truth, a kind of tree of knowledge. The desire to know.
As a mood piece, it’s also reminiscent of Stalker. Annihilation leans harder into the horror elements with more than a few gory spectacles, but it evokes a sense of otherness in a place, that somehow the environment itself is an entity with a mind of its own. As something new has taken over the world on a biological level, it is making all things into something new and different. Some of the best special effects of recent years are used here to create a visual aesthetic unlike any other movie.
On the simple level of a story about a journey of a group of people into an unfamiliar place, Annihilation is a captivating film. The visual richness of the experience and the creativity on display coupled with how it uses those to explore deeper ideas about the nature of life and death. At the same time, it’s a deeply personal story. Much of the film is Lena’s inner life as she reminisces on quiet moments with Kane. Here are some of the most tender and playful moments between an onscreen couple committed to film in recent years.
Annihilation is a strange story of destruction and creation, death and life, and the strange beauty of it all. It stands as one of the most bold and unique sci-fi films of recent years. Equal parts arthouse film, drama, adventure and romance, the film is a weird mesh of ideas that morph into something simultaneously familiar and alien. It’s dreamlike, otherworldly, familiar and deeply human.
© James Blake Ewing 2020