Annihilation is a sleeper science fiction gem with GOD-AWFUL marketing and heady themes

You may have seen the name “Annihilation” in passing. Natalie Portman, a shimmering force field, monsters? That’s the one.

It’s in theaters in the U.S., Canada, and China right now, where it’s getting stomped by Black Panther and others, and is on Netflix everywhere else. Watch the trailers and it looks like a movie we’ve seen before. A concerned lover (Portman) takes on a dangerous task to rescue their loved one (husband) from a strange place (inside a huge force field, or “shimmer”), but there are monsters there, so it becomes a fight for survival. This is the picture every trailer and commercial paints of the movie.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. The trailers are absolute garbage and do a TERRIBLE job of selling this movie for what it is.

Because what it is is so much better than those trailers make it seem.

Annihilation is a smart, strange, and provocative science fiction film that deserves a wider audience than it’s getting. Blending equal parts science fiction, psychological horror, and psychedelic musings about what happens when you unwind the human psyche, it’s a thought-provoking tonal experiment that is anything but the monster escape flick the trailers make it out to be.

Portman does indeed go on a trek to save her husband, sort of. Or rather, to find out what happened to him after he went inside this big glowing dome they call “The Shimmer,” which is being kept secret by the military. Inside, she and four others find the world as it is outside the dome, but just a little off. Nature seems to be exploding and mutating somehow. And then it gets strange.

Anything more than that is a spoiler. This is a film you don’t want to approach with too much knowledge.

The film is non-linear, so you spend some time jumping between now to the flashbacks that make up most of the movie, and then flashbacks within those flashbacks. Sounds confusing, but it isn’t.

The cast are all on quaaludes, but that’s the direction. The mood here is oppressive and dreamlike, like those dreams that linger in the morning, briefly blurring between reality and what exists at the fringes of reality. The ominous ambient score only deepens that mood. So yes, the acting is pretty wooden and sleepy, but it’s a deliberate choice that reflects where the movie goes.

That’s all I can say for now. If you love thought-provoking science fiction with a weird aesthetic, you need to go see this.

And now for those who have seen it, a little more:

SPOILERS AHEAD

A creepy purple-fleshed doppelganger that lives in a lighthouse and makes crystal trees.

Based on the marketing, who saw it going there? Hell, who saw it going there period?

Having neither read the novel nor any reviews or articles on the movie, I don’t know what people are saying about the ending or if there is an “official” explanation or what. I can only say what I took from it.

It was an alien, one that kind of absorbs and mimics the world around it and constantly reshapes it in a manic, cancerous form of evolution. That seems apparent. It’s a great concept at its core, one that plays with interesting ideas about biology and how it might be blended and twisted, about how adaptive evolution can be, and about how parasitic life forms could have spectacularly alien ways of spreading themselves, like fungus spores operating at the cellular level. It’s really strong stuff.

But that’s not really what the film is about, is it?

Nope, not at all.

The “shimmer” isn’t just an expanding alien dome of DNA-blending energy, it’s a kind of trigger that unpeels the self. The movie is about the self, really. It’s about what makes us tick psychologically, twisting our inner selves just so in order to reveal what’s truly inside.

The being Portman encounters mirrors her, imitates her in a disturbing echo of her own actions. But note that it doesn’t mimic her movements, it mimics her intentions. It’s a dark echo of her. A mirror image that shows a flipped version of her.

Three times, rather than follow her movements, the being breaks from the pattern of pure imitation and instead reacts to intent: when Portman first attacks it, when she tries to escape by the door, and when she gives it the grenade. It meets aggression with aggression; a desire for escape with its own desire to escape through Portman, and to Portman giving it death (or so it seems) cloaked in a gift. All other times, it moves with her, in a mirrored way.

Everything in the shimmer does this. Tessa Thompson’s character doesn’t feel as if she belongs anywhere or is a part of anything, she just wants to feel alive for once in her life, so she walks out into the green and becomes a part of the wilderness itself. Another character is consumed by the death of her daughter, she has nothing to live for, and she ends up consumed by a living embodiment of death, one that wears her voice after she is gone. And so on.

The characters who enter this dome go in knowing, whether consciously or not, that they go in either to die or to completely transform themselves in some way. It’s not necessarily literal at first, since no one knows what’s inside, but that’s why they are chosen. They are broken, damaged, dealing with some sort of internal crisis that is a cancer in them.

The world inside the dome manifests this. Any who step inside may as well be in a landscape made of their own psyche, one designed to twist it around until you’re forced to face it one way or another. Flowers explode into uncontrollable blooms. Creatures become grotesque or fantastical exaggerations of themselves. People do the same. They become exaggerated versions of what’s buried deepest in their heart, consumed by it.

The flashes of color in Portman’s eyes at the end tells us that what we saw in the climax wasn’t quite right. Portman never got out of there. Not really. The being, or part of the being, did. Portman is inside somewhere, absorbed by it.

The video she finds tells us what we already surmised from the start of the film, i.e. that her husband (Oscar Isaac) wasn’t her husband, it was just something that looked like him.

And we know for sure the being imitates people based on Portman’s confrontation with the doppelganger of her team leader, and shortly after the doppelganger-in-process she encounters of herself.

Both Portman and Isaac manage to make it all the way to the lighthouse because for both, what they want most is the truth. Not the truth about the lighthouse, but about each other. Portman’s infidelity and the way that looms large for Isaac is a key point here. So is Portman always being in the dark about her husband’s whereabouts.

So they reach the point of “truth,” of discovering what it inside the lighthouse and what is driving all this madness. Reaching that point is a literal representation of the truth they want to discover about each other. They are then consumed by it, dying, but close enough to the alien being so that it can assume their forms.

It’s no coincidence that the two parts or aspects of the being that got outside the shimmer are imitating husband and wife.

That’s what this whole movie is. It’s about examining the self. In the literal sense by way of an alien that twists DNA together into bizarre forms of itself, and metaphorically, in the way the world inside the shimmer unpeels what is in our hearts and minds.

Annihilation┬áisn’t the best science fiction film I’ve seen this year — that one is still BladeRunner 2049 — but it’s right up there.

2 Comments

  1. Matt CurtisMatt Curtis

    At this point it’s almost a given that smart, non-action sci fi isn’t going to do well at the box office, sadly.

    Reply
  2. Dave ToxikDave Toxik

    Saw this last night and was amazed.

    Reply

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