Annihilation 2018 – A visually stunning roller-coaster ride
Somewhere in the middle of the 2018 film Annihilation, Natalie Portman’s character says to her husband – “I know there’s something strange about this mission…the silence around it is louder than usual.” This dialogue mirrors my initial thoughts about Annihilation – I knew there was something strange about this film, because not many people were talking about it despite it being a Natalie Portman starrer. Naturally, I decided to watch it.
A secret “shimmer”
Portman plays Lena, a cell biologist at the Johns Hopkins University. She also happens to have served in the armed forces for 7 years in the past, which is where she met her husband Sergeant Kane (Oscar Isaac). Kane has been missing for the past year, until he makes a sudden reappearance. He is the only one who made it out of a secret government mission alive, except he is behaving very strangely. He seems to know nothing about where he has been or what he has been doing. Also, he suddenly starts bleeding and suffers multiple organ failure. All of this happens in the first ten minutes of the movie.
Meanwhile, Lena is escorted, to put it lightly, by some government officials to “Area X” in the “Southern Reach” region. Here, the government is hiding a secret, a “shimmer” that appeared around a lighthouse close to Area X after a meteor fell in its vicinity. It’s like the Bermuda Triangle in a giant soap bubble-like structure (or so it is shown in the movie). Many people (like Kane) have volunteered, or been asked, to go inside the Shimmer to understand its nature, its purpose, its consequences to the humankind.
Psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who evaluates and chooses the people who will go into the Shimmer, selects three other scientists to accompany her on another such expedition – geomorphologist Cassie Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and Anya, a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez, who played Jane in Jane the Virgin). Lena also volunteers to join the team so she can help find some much-needed answers to save her husband, who is still in critical condition due to multiple organ failure. The target of this team of scientists is to get to the source of the Shimmer (the lighthouse), collect data and come back to the outside world.
A beautiful swampland portrayed in Annihilation
Inside the Shimmer, which is depicted as a beautiful swampland, flowers, lichens, and even the teeth of an alligator (that Lena kills to protect the group) – all show signs of what Lena calls “continuous mutation” in the DNA of these organisms. Some unfortunate incidents and discoveries later, Josie deduces that the Shimmer is like a prism that ‘refracts’ not only light waves, but also DNA, which is why there seems to be a scrambling or mixture of DNAs from different species, leading to the strange flora and fauna of the Shimmer.
Towards the end, Ventress and Lena both manage to reach the lighthouse. Ventress explains the core of the movie to Lena, and the audience, right before she annihilates into a hollow cylinder of light – “Our bodies and minds will be fragmented into their smallest parts, until not one part remains. Annihilation”. This is what the ‘alien’ life has been trying to achieve – create new things, even doppelgängers that mirror the actions of the original life form, by annihilating the existing ones. At this point, allow me to stop talking about the story, because I do not want to spoil the ending for those who may be inspired to watch the movie now.
“Some questions will ruin you if you are denied the answer long enough.”
The film is based on the book Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer and is nicely brought to life through Alex Garland’s screenplay and direction. The somber aura and the urgency of the story reminds me of Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner starrer Arrival (2016). In a way, Annihilation is to Arrival what Bird Box is to A Quiet Place. But that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable or distinct.
I love the thought that went into creating the science of the Shimmer. For those of you who are biology enthusiasts like me, Ventress explains to Lena the difference between suicide and self-destruction at one point in the movie. I couldn’t help but think back to my first few biology classes in college when I learnt about ‘apoptosis’ and ‘autophagy’, which are the biological analogues of ‘suicide’ and ‘self-destruction’, respectively.
Josie also talks about human Hox genes (which play a crucial role in defining the physical structure of the body) being present in the plants in the Shimmer, because these plants seem to have a physical form just like humans. I wouldn’t go into scientific impossibilities here, because my brain wants me to think that everything is possible (This is exactly the kind of sci-fi that got me into biomedical research!). I think the film also nicely puts forth the matter and anti-matter theory in Physics and how the two annihilate each other, although I didn’t see the terms being used in the film.
Annihilation is a beautiful movie but with some unnecessary plot points
Moving over the science/sci-fi talk, I do think that the film does not make a strong case for why Kane agreed to go into the Shimmer in the first place. The story of Lena cheating on Kane with a colleague of hers seems like a very weak and unnecessary plot point. The movie also turns into a survivalist drama in the middle, during which two of the characters lose their lives. Other than holding some minor explanatory value for the story, this appears to be against the overall sci-fi genre of the movie.
A lot of the credit for the enrapturing visual appeal of the film goes to the excellent art direction. The art department clearly had a lot to accomplish for this movie, from creating human-shaped plants to glass trees, several ‘mutated’ lichen covered wall murals, the intricate design of the inside of the lighthouse and a lot more. Similarly, kudos to the visual effects team! Their job was also not minuscule by any means. The visual effects give the Shimmer a trippy quality, not unlike the TV show Legion, which works especially well for all the luminescent explosions that are shown in the end.
“It’s not destroying. It’s making something new.”
In the acting department, the entire cast has done well with the parts they were given. This is one of those films that depend less on the acting prowess of their cast, and more on their storyline, art direction and visual effects. Still, I must say that Rodriguez as Anya is a revelation here, even in her relatively minor role. In one scene where she confronts Lena for lying about her relationship with Kane and suspects that everyone else on the team is lying and plotting too, we see a side of Jane the Virgin that came as quite a pleasant surprise to me. Great job, Gina!
Also, Portman’s voice is like the voice of God. When she says, “we will be closely examining cancer cells in vitro and discussing autophagic activity” in the first few minutes of the film, I believed her completely and was ready to take notes. Just a side note, autophagy is a kind of self-destruction that some cells in the body inflict upon themselves, which I think is a very well-chosen metaphor for the whole movie.
In the end, with all its rights and wrongs, Annihilation promises to be a roller-coaster ride on which goosebumps are guaranteed. I for one think it deserves a bigger audience.
A visually stunning movie! However, Annihilation has some unnecessary plot points and a better job could have been done with the script. All in all though it is a movie definitely worth watching!
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