Although this is a science fiction film, it would make an interesting double-bill with The Ritual, which is unashamedly a horror film. This concerns a group of women lost in a savage wilderness, with purpose and motivation; that concerns a group of men lost in a wilderness, by accident, with no purpose and no clue. It’s interesting to compare and contrast how they cope.
But, to establish its enlightened science fiction credentials, before it sinks into the darkness of horror, the film’s first image is of a cell dividing. Biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) tells us that four billion years ago, all life began with one cell, alone, utterly by itself, dividing and doubling, then re-doubling, and so on.
All life, she reminds us, animal and vegetable, is related. Funny how no film has clocked that before. We have had biomechanical monsters, but have we ever had biovegetable monsters before? I don’t think even Cronenberg - who was obsessed with monsters spreading and growing like cancer - made that leap. Thinking it through, in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 and again in 1978 ... I ignore the subsequent versions), those aliens were vegetables, but the films don’t really dwell on that aspect of the invasion. They concentrate instead on the existential notion of a human being replaced by an identical copy and the paranoia of not knowing who is or isn’t real.
Annihilation also wanders fairly quickly into that territory, when Lena’s husband returns, but is subtly changed, less emotional, less human. He’s also been missing for a year and she’d presumed him dead. So she had lost the one she loved. Like Katherine Waterstone’s character in Alien Covenant (2017). Like in Amy Adams’ character in Arrival (2016). Why is it that boy protagonists in F&SF films are lost, but girl protagonists have lost?
When she touches her reappeared husband’s hand, we get the first of many subtle visual metaphors ... Their hands are seen distorted through a glass of water - a medium which warps and distorts - like The Shimmer, which takes life and alters it, changes its shape and breaks down its barriers.
The Shimmer is an area of disturbed and distorted land around the site of a crashed meteor. The area is described as possibly “a higher dimension?” - a veil which passes through to another dimension, possibly. This is a notion that viewers will be familiar with thanks to Stranger Things, but (as with everything else on that show) it comes from somewhere else. You could argue that the wardrobe (or the pools) in the Narnia books are gateways to other dimensions ... But I think it is really H.P. Lovecraft we are leaning towards here. His open doorways are to other dimensions, and should have been kept shut. Because, in those Lovecraft dimensions ... There be monsters!
We are told that the military / scientific garrison encamped next to The Shimmer, have sent in people and drones - and nothing has come back. But the film’s framing device has told us that Lena gets back - so we know the dénouement of this story going in! Like a lot of science fiction, this is a why film, not a what film. It wants us to think about the underlying cause of what we see, not just to sit and let events wash over us.
It speaks to the ambition of this film that the scenes of the soldier scientists travelling through the alien wilderness, are set in broad daylight, and yet are still deeply creepy. We’ve all seen groups of male soldiers creeping through wilderness - from Deliverance (1972) and Southern Comfort (1981), to Platoon (1986) and Predator (1987), but simply making the soldiers women makes the whole thing seem more unusual and unique. That said, the sequence when one of their number goes mad and starts brandishing a gun, is undeniably reminiscent of Bill Paxton’s turn in Aliens (1986). But, I think, Garfield is aware of these precedents. At one point they find a mini-gun and one of the soldier scientists (played by Gina Rodriguez) picks it up, then announces: “This shit is heavy ... Can’t carry this”. She isn’t Vasquez ... She doesn’t feel like she has anything macho to prove.
|The gang's all here: Arnie, Carl Weathers ... Sorry, I mean: Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton ... No, wait: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson and Gina Ridriguez. Lock 'n' load, ladies.|
The author of the original Annihilation book, Jeff VanderMeer, says that he hadn’t seen Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) when he wrote his novel, it isn’t a deliberate influence. I don’t think he can lay claim to being unaware of Lovecraft’s Colour out of Space (1927), mind; which concerns a meteor which crashes to earth, bringing alien life with it, which poisons a huge area of farm land known as ‘the blasted heath’, wherein animals and plants mutate. In the novel Roadside Picnic, which Stalker is loosely based upon, it is made clear (clearer than in the film), that ‘the zone’ was created by aliens.
So, adapter and director, Alex Garland has clearly seen a lot of Tarkovsky ... Lena’s flashbacks to happy times with hubby have the feel of Solaris (1972), and the its flashbacks impinged on the subjective reality of the present. The scenes of the soldier scientists treading lightly through the wilderness have the feel of Stalker ... Particularly in terms of the eerie sounds that fill the air. Of course, Tarkovsky’s toxic landscape was real, not created with careful CGI as here. The cancers that grew in the bodies of Tarkovsky’s crew, including the director, himself, were reputedly developed because of the exposure to the chemical waste in those corrupt industrial environments.
The notion of cancer as a simple product of cell reproduction gone wrong, is a thread that runs through the fabric of this film. During one of the dreamy flashbacks, we are told that seeing the Moon in the daylight feels like God made a mistake. Her husband is religious, where she isn’t, and insists that God doesn’t make mistakes. She promptly gives him an example - telling him that ageing is a mistake that a cell makes - correct the mistake and we’ll never age! The point of this story is to plant the notion that our matter, our DNA, is editable, reprogrammable and, therefore, the stuff of which we’re made can be altered. That is an important idea that underscores what we are seeing in The Shimmer.
Plants are mutating, different species on the same vine, vivid multi-coloured molds are growing on the trees. Lena describes the way the organisms grow on each other as “malignant - like tumours”. The mutations “corruptions of form ... duplicates of form ... echoes” get more obvious as the scientist soldiers got closer to the centre of the anomaly. It is integral to the movie - down at the bone-marrow level - for these characters to be women. The Shimmer is vibrant with life and, of course, women are synonymous with the creation of life, so it is only right that they should explore such a verdant place.
The evidence of life changing - one could even say evolving - that they find inside The Shimmer is both beautiful, in a painterly way, and grotesque. There are traumatising images in thee which will live with you long after you’ve finished watching. We get moments of truly disturbing body horror, and the evidence of spectacularly horrific events in the past - rather like MacReady and his team stumbling on the frozen remains in the Norwegian base, in The Thing (1982) - another unisex film about isolation and duplication, which this movie quietly channels and challenges.
|Natalie Portman, submitting her audition tape, should they ever want to recast Ellen Ripley.|
Garland resists the temptation to bombard us with what John Carpenter calls cattle-prods (loud bangs to make the audience jump). The film’s big set-piece is the attack of a skull-faced bear, which is all the more shocking because there is no musical build-up to warn you it’s coming ... Just the Stalker-like eerie tone in the air immediately after. Then there are the human voices in the music - umming and droning in a style not dissimilar to the aliens in the Stargate sequence of 2001 (1968). It all fills the film with unfamiliar life.
This sequence is unbearably tense (if you’ll pardon the pun) with one woman armed and mad - although completely self-aware of her madness - one monster on the loose, and three people gagged and tied to chairs. Very effective film making!
We see everything with Lena - if she doesn’t see it, we don’t see it - we wake up when she does, and wonder just how long she has slept, like she does. This is subjective film making, from the point of view of a woman who can no longer trust her own senses.
However, if we are to believe what we see - then we see that light in The Shimmer diffracts. It bends and splits - like light travelling through a prism, or through water in a glass. The light of The Shimmer doesn’t blend into the world - it diffracts - it sits in the air like oil in water. Imposed upon it, not part of it.
|The alien's attempts to blend in seamlessly with human life produced some mixed results.|
The alien growths are not integrated into life, they sit upon it, or grow through it and destroy it. The humanoid plants have human genes. Animal and plant has diffracted but, are they plants with aspirations to be human, or humans who would prefer to be plants? Josie, the self-harming Physicist, clearly welcomes the change. She goes native.
After this, Lena, who is now alone, despairs and runs into the woods and - suddenly - finds herself on the beach, by the lighthouse she has been seeking. Are we to believe this is literally happening, or another hallucination? The film doesn’t tell us, it leaves us room to speculate.
|Flower to the people.|
Now, in its dénouement, we are introduced to the third state of being: mineral. The sand of the beach is growing into crystal trees, suggesting the minerals have memories of, or ambitions to become, plants. Then Lena finds her actual husband - his body has transformed from organic to mineral. A cinder shaped like a man, that maybe retained memories of once being a man.
Inside the alien’s chamber (which looks way too much like an extruded egg-chamber from Aliens - one visual reference too many, methinks), Lena finally meets the alien - and it is truly alien. It is a cloud - glowing like a black hole in reverse. It communicates through music - deep, disturbing industrial synthetic sounds - after a soundtrack which has, hitherto, been entirely acoustic and human. The alien creates an avatar of Lena, which doesn’t move independently of her, it mirrors her. Mimicking her, but not perfectly. It imitates her physically, where the skull-faced bear imitated its victim audibly. This suggests that the alien influence isn’t really fundamentally changing life, just mimicking it. Echoing it.
When it touches her, the mimicry becomes complete. It stops diffracting her and starts to reflect her. It doesn’t understand fire - burning is just another state change to the alien, as with Lena’s husband, who changed from organic to charcoal. So, burning the alien, isn’t really going to kill it, since it seems to exist at a sub-molecular level - like Carpenter’s Thing, it will just mutate and evolve and move on to a new medium. It’ll never go away, it’ll just go on.
This is a sufficiently chilling thought, that the film earns its cheesy horror-movie ‘surprise’ ending.
Garland has humanised the characters as best he can. In the novel (as in Stalker) the characters have no names, only job descriptions. Here, he has named them - even though it’s easier, in a film, to do away with names. Portman’s Lena is the emotional heart of the film - but she isn’t the hysterical girl tripping over tree roots, nor is she the hysterical romantic desperate to rescue her man; she’s a capable scientist and ex-soldier - they all are. This film is very positive in its depiction of women as protagonists and as active agents.
The rest of the cast carry a significant burden - having to impart a lot of exposition, whilst creating a distinctive and engaging character. Swedish actress Tuva Novotny is particularly effective as Sheppard, who is the first trooper to befriend Lena. I had a problem with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Ventress, though. Twenty-five years ago, Leigh was, in my estimation, the best actress working in Hollywood - in films like Rush (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) there was no-one who could touch her for intelligent, intense performances. She’s still interesting and very watchable - but, here, she just sounds interminably bored. I presume that was an acting choice. It’s almost like she’s been cloned before the film begins!
Never-the-less, Annihilation is the smartest and most involving film I’ve seen in some time. It is visually sumptuous and subtle. It treats the audience with intelligence, and rewards the application of that intelligence. It benefitted from a second viewing and I await, with anticipation, the disc release with, hopefully, a pile of extras from Alex Garland discussing his take on the film.
Then I can watch it back-to-back with The Ritual.
Writer/Director: Alex Garland
Dur: 115 mins
Dur: 115 mins