Everything about writer/director Alex Garland's (Ex Machina) latest film, Annihilation, is subtle; it more alludes to everything than it does outright tell you what it wants you to think or what you should believe. This is key as Annihilation still presents a very specific set of circumstances and specific set of details around what is happening within these weird circumstances, but if you're going in for the creature effects and twist endings don't be surprised if you walk out disappointed on both accounts. In fact, as the credits began to roll in my screening last night the first thing I heard from a viewer seated behind me was a disdainful, "...okay?" as if they were more than a little unsatisfied by the conclusion Garland delivered. It's not hard to see why this might be case though, as most viewers and people in general have been set-up and conditioned to expect explicit answers and resolutions from our mainstream entertainment, but it was clear after Garland's 2015 directorial debut that the filmmaker wasn't interested in pleasing the masses, but more in pondering the possibilities. Annihilation, in many ways, is a movie that explores this very phenomenon of what our minds create when prompted and how so often what is imagined is greater than anything the reality of a situation could ever deliver. Each of the leading women who participate in the expedition that takes place in Annihilation have certain ideas of what they might encounter when entering "The Shimmer", but none of them really have a grasp on what they're getting themselves into or what lies ahead prior to their journey; each has no doubt imagined what might lie ahead of course, and it is in these ponderings that the reality of what they encounter comes to be so frightening. There is likely a large metaphor of some kind and/or a deeper meaning to the film at large that my limited mind has yet to comprehend, but after an initial viewing it is clear that what is going on in Garland's latest is more than what can be comprehended in a single viewing. In fact, I almost wanted to re-watch the film again as soon as it finished because I knew what I'd gathered from that first viewing barely scratched the surface. Annihilation, I think, is largely a movie about self-destruction with the catalyst of "The Shimmer" serving to personify whatever type of self-destruction the individual viewer might relate to most, at least that's what I'm going with at the moment.

Lena (Natalie Portman) welcomes her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) home after an extensive leave.
Photo by Photo credit: Peter Mountain - © 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
To describe the events of Annihilation is to make it sound much more straightforward than it actually is. In the opening moments of the film we see something akin to a meteor hit a lighthouse and begin to immediately expand. We meet Lena (Natalie Portman) who is a biologist at John Hopkins University where she is presently lecturing a class on the basis of all life on the planet which is to say it is a lecture about cells. We will get many shots of cells dividing throughout Annihilation, but this is the first of those that is meant to emphasize "small beginnings". Lena is approached by a fellow professor, Daniel (David Gysai), inviting her to a garden party he and his wife are throwing that weekend that informs the audience Lena's husband is gone and has been for quite some time, that she is still not able to move past this loss, and a slight-more intimate than it should be-gesture from Daniel suggests a history of some sort between them. Lena turns down the invite in favor of re-painting her bedroom over the weekend where, seemingly out of the blue, her husband returns. There is something different about Kane (Oscar Isaac) though, as he seems disoriented and doesn't know how he arrived at their house. In the midst of Lena trying desperately to extract even the smallest amount of information from him about where he's been for the last twelve months Kane shows signs that all is not well-with his mind or with his body. In being transported to the hospital a police escort surrounds the ambulance and takes both Kane and Lena to a classified location where Kane is essentially put on life support and Lena is made privy to the details of her husband's last mission that included venturing into "The Shimmer" along with the fact Kane is the only one to have ever made it back out. Lena is updated on what is known about "The Shimmer" via Doctor Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who tells our protagonist that there are many theories around what this mysterious force field of sorts encompasses, but very few facts. Lena subsequently meets the team of Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and Radek (Tessa Thompson) who, along with Ventress, are preparing to enter "The Shimmer" themselves as Ventress has watched for three years as she's put together teams just to send them on expeditions and never see them return. Lena, feeling she owes something to Kane, also volunteers to go with the group and so we watch as Lena and Radek's scientists, Thorensen's former EMT, and Ventresses psychologist venture into the unknown hoping to find something they don't know to look for.

With a film like Annihilation it is easy to get bogged down in the themes and meanings of it all and while this is certainly one of the greatest strengths of such a movie, there is an abundance of other choices that are worth being noted as well. First and foremost is the production design that has been created for the film. If Ex Machina surprised everyone a couple of years ago by winning the Best Visual Effects Oscar at the Academy Awards, Annihilation has every right to that Production Design trophy in 2019. There is also the facet of pairing this more rural and earthy score with these surreal images that registers a response that recognizes the juxtaposition, but isn't sure what to do with it. Back to the production design though, this is very obviously for what is seen within "The Shimmer" and while I hate to talk too much about what we see and what becomes each member of the team's perceived realities when inside "The Shimmer" it is the risks taken here so as to not go overboard and the balance that is found between the revoltingly grotesque and the beautifully ornate that Garland and his team, including Mark Digby (Slumdog Millionaire), somehow manage to pull off. Nearly every shot in Annihilation has that same color scheme as puddles on the road do when it rains and drops of oil float on the layer of water creating those distinct bands of color. Like the water itself, these images feel translucent in that they are allowing the light in so as to be projected and for the audience to make them out, but this quality always makes what we're seeing feel as if it's bouncing off something else or refracting which, as you'll see, comes to be a major point in the film and its story. Taking this production design to another level entirely is the way Garland sees these confusing, but intriguing designs that have been created to bring his vision and original book author Jeff VanderMeer's world to life. Garland, though he fancies himself more a writer than anything else, is certainly a director as he consistently finds interesting places to put his camera or even more interesting ways in which to view the events that are taking place in front of us. Never does this really distract from those events as it in fact has the opposite effect of bringing us more into what might have otherwise been a more routine scene. This is especially true early on when Kane first returns home and he is unable to answer any of his wife's questions despite her desperate attempts to reach out to him. At one point, Lena literally reaches out and grabs her husband's weightless hand, but instead of capturing this in a typical two-shot, Garland focuses in on the two hands through the distorted lens a glass of water provides hinting at the importance distortion and refraction will play in the narrative.

Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Lena, Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), Radek (Tessa Thompson), and Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) ready themselves to enter "The Shimmer".
Photo by Photo credit: Peter Mountain - © 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Small touches such as this make it feel as if everything Garland writes and shows us in his movies serves some type of purpose. That may sound like an obvious statement or that as much should be the case with every movie, but obviously that's not the case and with Garland, there is a stronger feeling of intent behind this action. Throughout much of Annihilation I would watch with the mindset of wondering what the aesthetic choices and colors might mean and/or represent as well as what significance certain lines might hold, but in doing so I likely stopped myself from basking in the bigger picture by focusing so much on these details. I don't know this for a fact, but this inherent realization no doubt had something to do with my urge to re-watch the film immediately after it ended my first time through. So, what is Annihilation about exactly? It's a modern parable of sorts it seems-in this volatile age filled with abundant amounts of transparency thanks to social media Annihilation is a parable about figuring out who we are, where we belong, what our true desires are, and how to figure out all of those things without first self-destructing. There is a particular scene in the film where Leigh's Dr. Ventress and Portman's Lena discuss how almost no one commits suicide, but almost all of us self-destruct in some way and to different degrees. That these tendencies are impulsive as well as being a part of our biology, they are "built into each cell," Ventress tells Lena. As it turns out, each of the women who venture into "The Shimmer" including Lena have their own reasons for doing as much and while each are performed reliably and endearingly by the talented cast of Thompson, Rodriguez, and Novotny it is no surprise the fates that await each of them as Garland is so confident in his narrative that he informs us at the top of the film what happens to the others on Lena's expedition team. This further emphasizing that Annihilation is not about the details of the plot and that its tension isn't held in standard devices such as death as much as it's pointed toward this question of how do we continue to live a fulfilling life as this formation of cells without self-destructing when even the God that made us has the ability to make mistakes; aging being a fault in our genes. Of course, that last sentence could easily set-off a firestorm of counter-arguments based on different interpretations of the word "mistake". Is aging really a mistake if it allows us to better understand and appreciate the best moments and parts of this life we've been granted? Maybe? Maybe not? The point is, with Annihilation Garland seems to want to try to find a way to describe the unfathomable and to a certain extent he perfectly captures what it feels like not to be able to explain that very thing he's chasing. Which is probably the point of it all anyway.


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