The dizzying journey of Annihilation begins with a look through a microscope at life at the cellular level. What follows is an even deeper exploration into what makes us human. Annihilation is expert filmmaking paced with just the right amount of patience, and filled with bold, refreshing visuals that pop off the screen. And it is still a dreadful experience. Yes, despite its inventive smorgasbord of color, set design, and untamed imagination, the film feels like sitting through a funeral. This is likely intentional, what with it being a movie about how we actively destroy ourselves and all.
To be clear, the makeup of the film is outstanding. Annihilation is stunning in just about every aspect, not the least of which is the performances. The all-female cast is simply exceptional. I can’t say they’re given much more to do but sulk and simmer, but each one gives their character a personal stamp. Natalie Portman is particularly superb at making you feel the vacancy in her character Lena – a woman filled with guilt and railing against her own fate.
The central events of the film draw parallels to a creation myth. A force called “the shimmer” is mixing up life at the genetic level, birthing new creations, establishing new natural orders, and may soon spread across the globe and essentially re-create everything as we know it. Each of the characters must either accept or reject this occurrence, forced to venture into their own psyches to make their decision. This plays out through deep psychological horror and philosophical drama. That’s a nice mix to toss into a blender and put on a screen, but it’d be more enjoyable if the film’s message wasn’t just so hopeless. Or like, someone cracked a smile once or twice.
Almost none of us commit suicide. And almost all of us self-destruct.
As abstract as the movie gets, the central idea posited underneath it all is pretty simple: we’re such self-absorbed creatures that we’re each just going to bring about our own destruction. Whew. That’s heavy, Doc. The reasons given in the film for humanity being hell bent on destroying ourselves can be summed up in the answer every character gives when asked what happened to them in the shimmer: “I don’t know.” Seriously, nobody ever knows what’s going on, and the climax of the film provides few answers, and even fewer revelations on its ideas.
What can be gleaned from Annihilation, and Garland’s similar brilliance-meets-broody directorial debut Ex Machina, is that Garland seems to believe humans are not only prone to self-destruction, but that we deserve it too. This is evident in that his human characters never fare well, but the consequences live on- Ava the A.I in Ex Machina in particular. Looking at the current global political landscape, one can hardly blame him for thinking such a way, but the conclusions of his two directorial efforts lack hope. This belief shares commonalities with Christian belief in that man is inherently corrupt and deserving of judgement. However, without hope, as the Christian believes we have in Christ, one can easily plunge into nihilism, and it’s a wonder if Garland hasn’t already done so.
Annihilation isn’t nihilistic (say that five times fast), it’s just drab. If I gave official star ratings for films, this one would be tricky because it is quite well done in everything but its script and message. One struggles to care about the characters since they aren’t well explored, yet the performances are great. Garland is content with leaving many questions swirling, but it’s a few too many. Though the film seeks to venture deep into the human psyche, it really never makes it past that cellular level idea. The most hopeful observation of the film may be that we all share the same cells and togetherness is necessary, if not inevitable. But the film seems determined not to let you enjoy such a thought.