This review contains spoilers.
I have never had cause to dance with a faceless doppelgänger of myself in a meteor-ravaged lighthouse, but if this were ever to occur, I would want Alex Garland to film it. In Annihilation, Garland’s latest sci-fi thriller, this is exactly what he does. And then some. Ex Machina, Garland’s 2014 offering which explored the nature of consciousness, is a difficult film to follow, but Annihilation strides onto the sci-fi scene with equally ambitious aims. The trouble is, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what these are.
A team of five scientists – which includes Lena (Natalie Portman), Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) – decides to enter the Shimmer, an expanding, mysterious prism from which no human has yet returned (perhaps excepting Lena’s husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac)). Their reasons for doing so are unclear, and the partial unravelling of these motives forms the emotional core of the film.
Space and time operate differently in the Shimmer, a refractive prism that proves hazardous to biological life. Organismal traits and characteristics shift, echo, and merge, creating fantastical new life forms. All this while at the same time distorting the molecular selves of humans who enter from the outside. Alligators become larger, bears more articulate.
Mutations, in DNA and in cells, have a key role. Centring on mutations in a sci-fi film has Annihilation treading dangerous ground, as disaster film 2012 discovered when it unironically placed the words “the neutrinos are mutating!” into a scientist’s mouth. It should be a small ambition of every science-fiction film to avoid this pseudoscientific logorrhoea, in which science-sounding words are used as if dictionaries did not exist. It is perhaps to avoid such a mishap that Garland has such an admirable commitment to scientific accuracy. He is, after all, one of the few directors who can boast the services of a scientific advisor, the geneticist Adam Rutherford. This is encouraging, and hopefully sets a precedent.
The dome-like concept of the Shimmer was initially concerning, evoking as it does The Simpson’s Movie, or Stephen King’s Under the Dome. But it sets the stage for a string of gorgeous details: the HOX-gene-infected trees that take on humanoid form; the faceless, I, Robot-esque clone creature; and a particularly gruesome scene involving a hyperactive intestine. The mirror doppelgänger sequence, an eerie representation of self-defeating tendencies inherent in us all, leaves a lasting impression.
It is in the design and the artwork that Annihilation impresses most vividly, but these cannot mask the blemishes. The uncertainty and ambiguity are laid on thick, and the second half of the film often risks becoming an exercise in abstract expressionism. This comes at the price of character development; we learn just about enough about the leads, but no more.
Annihilation is both gorgeous and imperfect, stylish and uneven, at once both detail-obsessed and overly abstract. It is never entirely sure what it wants to say, but it is bracing and lustrous in its uncertainty.
Jordan Hindson is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London
Banner Images: Annihilation, In The Queue