Three years ago, a meteor landed on a coastline in the United States. Ever since that day, a strange disturbance known as the Shimmer appeared. In response, many expeditions have been carried out by the army, though only one person has ever returned from them: a man named Kane. Upon returning, he reunites with his wife, Lena, but is unusually evasive when asked what happened during his expedition. Shortly thereafter, his health begins to deteriorate and is quickly hospitalized. With Kane in intensive care, Lena is approached by Dr. Ventress. She is prepared to go on a new expedition into the Shimmer. Determined to learn what happened to Kane, Lena volunteers to join her.
From the outset, Annihilation represents a significant step up from Alex Garland’s debut film, Ex Machina, in terms of scale. The mid-2010s was a time in which AAA blockbusters dominated the scene, so for a low-budget production with a minimalist cast such as Ex Machina to be a commercial and critical success left many Hollywood journalists stunned. Considering that many fans considered Ex Machina a triumph in minimalism, making an adventure film laden with science-fiction elements as an immediate follow-up was quite the daring undertaking.
The entire plot naturally revolves around the Shimmer. The film is initially vague as to what the Shimmer actually is. We know that it has caused a serious disturbance, but its exact nature is unclear. Of the many people to have entered the Shimmer, only Kane emerged alive – and he is currently incapacitated. At the same time, while the Shimmer’s expansion is a cause for worry, it isn’t as though it disintegrates everything it touches. The government must find some way to remove this disturbance, yet they clearly have no idea how to proceed.
This is perhaps the greatest strength of the film; it gradually eases its viewers into the mystery. When the group, consisting of Dr. Ventress, Lena, and three other women – Josie Radek, Cassie “Cass” Sheppard, and Anya Thorensen – enter the Shimmer, things begin to go awry, albeit slowly. Upon doing so, they almost immediately black out. When they awake, they find themselves unable to communicate with the outside world. They don’t have any memories of what happened upon entering the Shimmer, but they conclude that they were unconscious for three or four days.
Although it wasn’t exceptionally violent, Ex Machina possessed a highly visceral component to its storytelling that became apparent in the final act. This aspect takes far less time to manifest in Annihilation. During their expedition, the team is accosted by an albino alligator. Upon vanquishing it, the group observes something strange about the creature. They open its mouth only to discover it possesses many rows of shark-like teeth. Things get even more bizarre when they happen upon an abandoned military base containing a video message from Kane’s expedition. In the video, he slices open the abdomen of another solder only to reveal that the latter’s intestines are slithering like eels. When Lena and her group find the corpse, it has turned into a lichen colony.
It is after discovering an abandoned village that the nature of the Shimmer is revealed. Studying the humanlike plants nearby, Josie concludes the Shimmer acts as a prism for DNA, which in turn, mutates anything that wanders into its boundaries. This is proven after the group had been previously attacked by a mutated bear. They were unable to prevent it from dragging Cass away, and when it reappears, it cries out in her voice. It quickly kills Anya before Josie frees herself and fatally shoots the creature.
I do find myself giving Mr. Garland credit for being ambitious. Although Annihilation is based off the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, it takes several deviations from the source material. The final product was, to Mr. Garland’s own admission, based off his loose memory of the novel. What is perhaps the most notable deviation is that this film doesn’t have an antagonist to speak of. The Shimmer is responsible for spawning the various threats the group must face on their way to the lighthouse situated near the meteor’s impact crater, but it isn’t a sentient being acting out of malice as much as it is a force of nature.
It ultimately turns out to be a metaphor for humankind’s destructive nature. The various monstrosities that run around the Shimmer are meant to symbolize the environmental damage caused by humankind’s scientific endeavors. While this is certainly a creative development, I have to comment that it also cements Annihilation as a product of its time in the bad sense of the term. Mr. Garland’s previous film, Ex Machina, touted itself as the thinking person’s science-fiction piece when, in practice, it was deeply anti-intellectual. Annihilation doesn’t quite make the same mistake with the concept of science being shown in a more positive light. However, the idea of making the Shimmer into this kind of metaphor demonstrates a marked lack of imagination spawned from a want to follow trends rather than to break the mold.
I also find myself actively disliking the framing device. Most of this film takes place after Lena has already left the Shimmer. While under quarantine, she then relays the events of the film to an official. There are two significant problems with this setup. First of all, you now know that as bad as things get, Lena will find some way to survive whatever the Shimmer has to throw at her. Granted, it is kind of a given that, unless the director takes the audience calling their bluff as a challenge, the protagonist will survive long enough for the story to completely unfold. Regardless, knowing that she will emerge alive ruins any kind of suspense the film may have had. Moreover, that only Lena is being questioned may hint to savvy viewers none of her comrades survive. While the exact manner in which they meet their end is shocking, the outcome itself isn’t.
The other significant problem with the framing device is that it feels tacked on. It reads as the kind of development the studio executives would impose upon a project after initial test screenings resulted in negative feedback. Interestingly, the test screenings for Annihilation were indeed negative, and in response, executive producer David Ellison demanded several changes be made in order to have the film appeal to a larger audience, deeming it “too intellectual” and “too complicated”. However, producer Scott Rudin, who had the final say, sided with Mr. Garland, releasing the film in an unaltered state. Although it could be seen as a triumph for the auteur theory, how the chain of events panned out strongly implies that the unnecessary framing device was a part of Mr. Garland’s original vision and not borne from studio notes.
Regardless of how, exactly, this decision was made, it causes a lot of problems with pacing on top of violating the basic storytelling premise of showing rather than telling. Exposition is welcome when dealing with a premise as strange and otherworldly as the one upon which this film operates. However, this film is at its most effective when it allows the plot developments to speak for themselves. It could have been used to expand upon certain events, but there isn’t anything the viewer can extrapolate from these scenes that they could plainly see in the film proper. Conversely, if something isn’t explained, you can safely bet it was meant to be deliberately vague. As it stands, whenever it cut back to Lena speaking with the official, I found myself impatiently waiting for the scene to finish so the film could return to the interesting portions.
What I consider to be this film’s biggest flaw, however, is that it bares many growing pains from Mr. Garland having upgraded his sense of scale between projects. Many contemporary efforts – particularly ones that tried to enforce a certain commentary – were guilty of having significant logical discrepancies. This was especially common with heavy-handed narratives, as creators would become laser-focused on their message to the point where every other aspect suffered due to not receiving the same level of scrutiny. For example, District 9 suffered from such extreme tunnel vision, the narrative enforced the very unfortunate implications it was trying to combat.
Now, Annihilation is not nearly as heavy-handed as something such as District 9. If anything, I find myself Mr. Garland credit for being critical without becoming too preachy. What I instead fault him for is that the premise of his film makes very little sense when parsing its diegetic implications. The narrative goes to great lengths to keep Lena in the dark. This is the basic means by which important exposition is delivered, and it is especially helpful when trying to make sense out of such a phenomenon to have someone equally uninitiated go through the same motions. Nevertheless, the narrative’s attempts at maintaining this premise result in myriad plot holes.
To wit, there are several points wherein members of Lena’s team wish to escape the Shimmer so they could report on their findings. Dr. Ventress shoots down this notion, reasoning that they can’t turn back until they discover the full truth and anything less would cause further confusion. This heavily implies that every single group before them decided not to turn back either. There comes a point when an expedition has gone so thoroughly off the rails that one must realize the most ideal outcome can no longer be reached and that pressing on would, at best, result in a Pyrrhic victory. A partial report would be highly preferable to a nonexistent one – especially given that only one person has emerged from the Shimmer alive.
To be fair, considering the strange effects the Shimmer has on the protagonists, they are likely not in a sound state of mind. However, this is something the audience needs to be informed of. It is a rookie mistake to assume that stupid or mentally unsound characters make bad decisions for no reason. While characters can indeed make illogical decisions, they still must be logically consistent. This does sound counterintuitive, but people tend to make illogical decisions as a result of mental blind spots. If you’re to the point where your characters are making bad calls solely to advance the plot or maintain its integrity, there is a serious problem with the script.
The narrative does attempt to justify this by giving Dr. Ventress terminal cancer, thus meaning she has nothing to lose by undergoing this mad journey, and the consequences for risking her subordinates so brazenly would be minimal. However, it still doesn’t explain why any previous team failed in the exact same way – unless the government had the foresight to only send leaders who were also secretly dying of cancer or some other kind of terminal illness. This would include the very first team they sent back when they had no information about the Shimmer at all. It also fails to account for the fact that Dr. Ventress’s subordinates clearly don’t buy her tenuous reasoning yet go along with the expedition for no reason other than to ensure the plot has a proper resolution.
On a more general level, the premise falls apart when you consider that the meteor fell in a reasonably populated area. The people living there were told to evacuate due to a chemical spill, which is why it is deserted when Lena’s team investigates it. The government has been covering up the incident for three years, which suggests not a single person has asked any questions about it in the interim. I could understand that if the meteor landed in an obscure part of the world such as northern Canada or Antarctica, but not on a United States coastline. Logically, there is no possible way they could have covered up such an incident for three years. Such a feat could only be achieved if they bribed, imprisoned, or killed every single citizen whose lives were directly affected – and then repeat that process for every other human being in the entire world once independent sources inevitably discovered the Shimmer’s existence.
Finally, I found the ending to be somewhat underwhelming. Upon reaching the lighthouse, Lena discovers that Kane has committed suicide using an incendiary grenade. The Kane who emerged from the Shimmer was actually a doppelgänger that spawned into being after the original’s destruction. Here, Dr. Ventress disintegrates, causing a humanoid figure to appear that mimics Lena’s every movement. Lena defeats it by having the figure mimic her own suicidal tendencies, placing an active phosphorus grenade in its hands. The figure makes no attempt to resist and it is set ablaze along with the lighthouse. After Lena discloses everything to the official, Kane makes a miraculous recovery. When Lena asks if Kane is the genuine article, he admits he probably isn’t. He asks the same question; Lena doesn’t respond. He embraces her and both of their irises shimmer.
With Ex Machina, Mr. Garland made it no secret his contempt of the Hollywood ending, and in a way, Annihilation follows in its footsteps. As a twist ending, it is far less obnoxious than that of Ex Machina. The ending of Ex Machina fell apart when you realize that it left one character without any further motivations. While others praised it for its subversive nature, I simply asked, “Okay, and then what?” The ending of Annihilation is more effective because, ironically enough, it is more ambiguous. It pulls the rug from under the audience, but it places the onus on them to figure things out. Is Lena a clone? Did Kane really die? It’s clear the Shimmer altered them both, but the narrative doesn’t feel the need to unnecessarily blindside the audience, and in that regard, it is effective.
Where the narrative loses me is the dim view it has of humanity. Plenty of works espouse similar sentiments about humankind, but Annihilation subscribes to a dangerously naïve brand of nihilistic cynicism that was practically ubiquitous in late-2010s science fiction. To have been considered an intellectual at the time, it was practically a prerequisite to express contempt for other humans. I don’t expect works to solely focus on the good side of humankind, but to insist that it is in the species’ very nature to destroy themselves, one would have to blatantly ignore the many, many pieces of information capable of contradicting such a conclusion. By mimicking the incredibly shallow platitudes every other science fiction writer was saying at the time, Annihilation doesn’t have an identity it can truly call its own. I still think it’s better than Ex Machina, but it’s sad when you consider the intentionally misanthropic narrative manages to be improvement over the unintentionally anti-intellectual one.
Annihilation serves as an interesting case study when compared to Mr. Garland’s debut effort because while Ex Machina demonstrated his weaknesses on a micro scale, this film does so on a macro scale. That is, he could come up with some incredible concepts in the realm of science fiction but had a lot of difficulty getting his ideas to connect. The result was an artistic canon that, as of 2018, seemed impressive in the moment, yet seldom withstood any kind of deep, critical scrutiny. It is for that reason I can’t help but think of Mr. Garland as the George Lucas of his generation.
Both even fell apart once given complete creative control, though the exact way it occurred was far different. Despite mixed reviews for his Star Wars prequel trilogy, Mr. Lucas was able to reel in his audience. Indeed, Revenge of the Sith, the third and final entry ended up being the most profitable. Conversely, Mr. Garland worked with a budget far greater than that of Ex Machina and ended up making roughly the same amount of money. Exacerbating matters, Annihilation was released around the same time as Black Panther – perhaps the single most acclaimed film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon at the time. This combination of factors resulted in what was one of the biggest box office bombs of 2018. In stark contrast to A24’s propensity to back up any auteur who passed through their ranks, Paramount had no faith in the film at all. They actively sabotaged the film’s success by advertising it as little as possible and selling the distribution rights to Netflix to mitigate their own loses. To add insult to injury, it wasn’t made available on the streaming service in North America.
In response to this development, fans immediately considered Annihilation an underrated classic along with being one of the best films of 2018. While I can certainly sympathize with Mr. Garland’s plight, I have to say that his sophomore effort doesn’t fare much better than his debut. I do give credit to Annihilation for attempting to excise the anti-intellectual undertones of Ex Machina on top of boasting far more ambition. This is enough to make it a worthwhile watch for those who consider themselves connoisseurs of the genre. I can even envision people who didn’t like Ex Machina finding Annihilation a good effort.
Unfortunately, for all its ambition, Annihilation ultimately doesn’t escape the creative bankruptcy that defined science fiction in the 2010s. Despite many science-fiction pieces getting acclaim during this time, the rampant confirmation bias that dominated contemporary criticism ensured many creators received acclaim for hammering heavy-handed themes into the minds of their viewers rather than exercising their imagination. In this case, Annihilation is guilty of espousing the same trite platitudes concerning the supposed self-destructive nature of humankind other science-fiction pieces such as Black Mirror handed out like penny candy at the time. Regardless of the amount of vitriol they spat at humankind, it didn’t change the fact that it was an extremely passive way of creating art. Those with staying power tend to define the times; those without it tend to be defined by the times. Annihilation won’t necessarily lose you if you’re not onboard with its message, but if you find yourself wholly incapable of suffering confrontational zeitgeist of late-2010s filmmaking, you can give it a pass knowing it isn’t worth the investment.
Final Score: 4/10