It’s an intriguing preamble: Lena (Natalie Portman) a cellular biologist at John Hopkins University is overwhelmed by the necrotic dullness and numbing grief that comes with the presumed death of her Army husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). Months pass and she’s now expected to finally Move On, as the world proceeds at its unceasing clip, leaving Lena with only her sepia-hued memories. Writer/director Alex Garland’s Annihilation does what most sophomore directorial efforts tend to do: get bigger, more ambitious, and a little more complicated. And as is often the case with such enterprising aspirations, Annihilation will undoubtedly lack the critical cache that was showered upon Ex Machina. Unfortunate, given how much more thoughtful and simply better a film Annihilation happens to be.
The rapid and oblique editing patterns of the first ten minutes or so of Annihilation impose a sense of anomie, in what frequently reads as a complete disassociation of narrative trajectory. Fragmented shots impose vitality, as we observe a meteor crashing into a lighthouse, cells violently dividing, and the austere confines of a graduate classroom; all images that inform one another but are left to linger without context, with Garland confidently hoping that his audience will be able to piece together the puzzle. The prevailing emotion here is one of woe, the kind of woe that weighs heavily on the heart of Lena, who we first observe in conversation with a colleague. They have a short spat (shot in soft hues) where Lena confesses that she can’t attend a party because she intends on “painting the bedroom”. It’s a line reading that echoes with sorrow, uttered by Portman as a reticent but necessary act in self-preservation; a first attempt at putting the pieces back together after self-destruction.
As it were, Kane’s not dead. His abrupt departure for a mission is matched by his odd return. Something’s just off about him. What proceeds, at least for a portion of the film’s second act, is a fairly rudimentary need to contextualize the aforementioned grief and apply a more conventional narrative onto this whole enterprise. We learn about Kane’s whereabouts and observe Lena as she joins a cadre of female academics and soldiers (including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny) on a mission to The Shimmer, an expanding force field that has consumed all parties that have attempted to explore its interior, with only Kane having made it out alive.
Following the film’s expository dump, Garland thankfully eases back, adopting a more relaxed pace as Lena et al. explore The Shimmer. What occurs in this ever-expanding alien landscape is a form of cellular restructuring, where organisms fuse with one another in sometimes beautiful, sometimes horrific ways. The sense of exploration, both for its geography and how Garland navigates his character’s emotional wounds, makes for an especially compelling drama. The prevailing sense of doom that grips these women isn’t necessarily an outcome of their milieu but rather their own disenchantment with life outside The Shimmer – characters speak of their self-destructive tendencies and personal travails, admitting to volunteering for this suicide mission as less an act of selflessness but more as a kind of last resort. One cannot appreciate life until confronted with certain death.
It’s unfortunate that Garland utilizes a framing device that strips a lot of the ambiguity of the film’s journey. I fixate on how much more delicious the film’s closing moments would’ve been without it, but that’s perhaps beyond the point. What we’re left with in Annihilation is an astonishing mediation on grief, where anhedonia is given a tactile quality, existing as something beyond mere abstraction. There are literal confrontations here with the self that, normally, I’d consider too obvious or simplistic. But whether it’s the sincerity of the film’s performances (Portman is the obvious standout, though Swedish actress Tuva Novotny is a notable discovery) or the percussive anxiety of the film’s score (by Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrows), Annihilation’s shortcomings become increasingly irrelevant when compared to its notable achievements. For here’s a film that suggests that there is a bottom to all that despair and agony, that those emotional obstacles we endure are not infinite. The hard part comes in confronting it and then not letting it become you.