Spoilers follow for the film Annihilation, though this post will refrain from revealing the ending of the movie and some other key information.
The film Annihilation portrays an alien landscape that fell down on a little-occupied section of Florida swampland, kept secret by the United States government. The area is contained in an iridescent bubble, called by those who research it, “the Shimmer.” Much of the landscape within the Shimmer is eerily beautiful, nearly transcendentally so, as is the bubble of iridescence itself. But like a malignant cancer, the Shimmer spontaneously grows continually larger, threatening to eventually envelop the entire world. Threatening to annihilate the human race.
Above is the backstory of this science fiction story that has horror elements. This film is rated R, with two portrayals of sex without nudity (in flashbacks of the main character), some use of the F word and other cursing (heaven forbid that modern people could face danger without dropping F-bombs…)–though actually not that much cussing, and some gruesome violence, mostly in regard to a single bear-like monster that attacks the team of researchers who enter the Shimmer, but also concerning some actions human beings take against one another. This is not a family film, but this is not a gore-and-blood fest either–nor is it hugely sexual, nor continually profane. I thought it was well-executed overall and worth seeing.
Natalie Portman portrays Lena, a biology professor at Johns Hopkins University who was at one time a US Army soldier. During her time in the Army she met her husband, Kane, played by Oscar Isaac (known as the actor behind Poe Dameron to Star Wars fans). The film opens with Lena in her ordinary life, teaching about cell division and cancer, while she was mourning the loss of her husband, who disappeared a year ago in some sort of service to the Army that was so secret that she does not even know where he went or what he was doing. But did know he disappeared and is presumed dead.
She is propelled into the crisis of the story when she sees her husband suddenly outside her bedroom door, ill, not able to remember what he was doing for a year or why. It turns out he was part of a military team of volunteers that entered the Shimmer, and he’s the first one ever “seen or heard from again.” Soon government types take him and his wife (who they think may know too much and/or be exposed to toxic conditions) back to a top-secret location nearby the Shimmer, where Lena pleads to find out what happened to her husband. When she learns about the Shimmer, she offers to apply her prodigious skills as a biologist to help research it.
She is driven not just by a desire to help heal her husband (there’s a secret about her husband that is revealed later in the story that I will not discuss in this review), but also by guilt, since in flashbacks we learn she was having an affair with another man during her husband’s previous deployment(s), something he apparently knew without ever telling her or confronting her about (this betrayal is shown in the sex scenes without nudity). The film makes some commentary here about human self-destructive behavior, but in my view that aspect of the movie was not very important (though other people might disagree with me, of course).
Revealed in one of several flashbacks that establish how happy Lena and Kane were together in spite of being very different people (she the intellectual, he a “dumb soldier”), is a conversation I found very interesting, though it I don’t think it’s key to the plot. Kane tells Lena that “God doesn’t make mistakes.” Lena laughs and a bit playfully states “God makes mistakes” in an attitude that suggests she may not believe in God at all. Kane replies in a light tone, but more seriously than her, that she should be careful, because “God is listening to you right now.” Clearly Kane is a believer in God. And perhaps (though probably not) Lena is as well.
No one prays, of course, and there’s no clear suggestion that God in any way helps Kane or actually exists (in fact, I’d say the story implies God does not exist, though not blatantly)–Kane’s belief is instead probably intended to show how different he and Lena are and to underpin the idea that he’s not as bright as her (in the prejudices of those who produced the film). But he is perhaps the most selfless and altruistic character in the story. Which is a bit uncommon in modern films–those who believe in God, if there is anybody like that in a story at all, are far too often portrayed much worse.
After a relatively short time at the research center outside the Shimmer, Lena convinces the lead psychologist who picks the teams that go into the Shimmer, Dr. Ventress, that Lena should be a part of the next team to go. The psychologist, who has decided to head up this team herself, agrees.
The movie never comments directly on the fact that Dr. Ventress’ team is composed only of women, such as by one of the characters looking around and saying “Hey, we’re all women” or by Dr. Ventress explaining why she picked women. It just happens to be the case in the film. Each woman is stated to be chosen for a specialty, though each one also had personal reasons to volunteer for what they know is probably a suicide mission.
To me it made internal sense in the story that the team would be all-female. Previous teams, as far as was revealed, were composed of elite solders, presumably all men or mostly men, who never made it back alive. It made sense that the woman responsible for picking teams, when she decided to lead a team herself, would pick women to go with her. Why not? What was there to lose in trying an all-female team?
The other characters that accompany Dr. Ventress and Lena into the Shimmer I found convincing and interesting–though in the final analysis, they are wholly disposable to the story, though in radically different ways. It was Nadalie Portman herself as Lena that I found unconvincing in the soldiering scenes. She seems too scrawny to carry a backpack very far (none of the other women in the story seemed unrealistic in that respect, by the way), and did not seem to carry or use a rifle in a way that I would call realistic, though that’s based on relatively subtle things (like her use of a weapon sling or lack thereof).
When I mentally pulled on that thread of the story, i.e. the lack of realism around Nadalie Portman’s Lena, more of the plot unraveled for me. Ok, why hadn’t the Army ever sent robots in, programmed to gather data and return? (Electronic devices are shown to operate within the Shimmer, but radio communications through the barrier do not). Why not send someone with a cable, telephone or fiber-optic, to circumvent the radio problem? Or why not give somebody orders to return right away after crossing instead of ordering everyone to travel to the center of the phenomenon? Why not at least stick a very long pole through the barrier to take samples, for heaven’s sake?
It just doesn’t make sense to me that the essential plot condition of nobody every coming back from having been inside the Shimmer would actually happen–that there would be NO data about what was inside it prior to the protagonist’s team entering. For this plot to make sense, you have to assume researchers kept trying the same thing over and over and over, for three years, without results. Technically that’s possible, but it’s not how human beings normally act.
Once inside the Shimmer, the first thing that happens is the team loses track of where they are and what they are doing. They find themselves in a camp they apparently set up previously but cannot remember, having been there for four days based on food consumption. They realize their minds and perceptions are altered. But at first everything else seems pretty normal (though their compass doesn’t work, nor do radios, phones, or GPS).
As they progress deeper into the Shimmer, headed for the lighthouse where this alien disturbance first came to Earth, things get progressively stranger. They observe flowers of all shapes and types stemming from a single vine, plant-animals such as deer that have flowering branches for antlers, flowering vines that take the shape of human beings, and more dangerously, an alligator-shark combination and a strangely skeletal and truly horrifying bearlike thing, whose voice sounds like a human crying for help.
Josie, the young physicist on the all-female team, speculates that the Shimmer refracts everything, not only light and other electromagnetic radiation, but also DNA. And that “refracted DNA” was the cause of all the strange effects on plants and animals they were observing. Including the strange effects on them.
Annihilation does not assign any malice to these changes. There is no villain in the story. These things simply happen because something alien made contact with Planet Earth. Most of the time the things in the Shimmer are beautiful and awe-inspiring, sometimes they are terrifying. Sometimes both at once.
In fact the reasons the Shimmer exists at all are never made very clear, not even after Lena finds the lighthouse and enters it, where she finds Dr. Ventress, apparently in some form of contact with the alien force behind the Shimmer. “I don’t know what it wants,” exclaims Dr. Ventress at that point. “I don’t know if it wants.”
The alien Lena eventually meets, while it takes some unmistakable interest in her, remains incomprehensible through the end. Note this tale develops the plot slowly, with powerful, even awe-inspiring visuals, punctuated by violence that seems to happen “just because.” The movie presents the aliens and the changes they make in our world (perhaps or perhaps not unintentionally) as what I would call transcendent, because these things are both awesome and incomprehensible. In some ways this movie reminded me of Solaris, which also featured encounters with bizarre aliens in a beautiful but ultimately incomprehensible way.
But even though the aliens and their realm is transcendent, they act in the way evolution is believed to function. The alien life comes with a basic mandate to grow and expand itself as much as possible (though this is never clearly explained in the story, it’s obvious in the plot, most importantly because the Shimmer was always growing in size), not in a way that is deliberately hostile, but which just happens to be a threat to life as we know it, especially to human life.
Malignant cancer cells do not deliberately kill human beings either–they have no evil intent–but as they endlessly reproduce themselves, they displace ordinary cells, smothering them out, eventually killing the organism that generated them. It isn’t insignificant that this story started out with the main character examining cancer cells.
I felt this story embodied a quote first generated in 1927 by the British geneticist and evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane (who was an atheist and who clashed with C.S Lewis). In a slightly different form from his original quote, he said, “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”
Yes, in this story, the point of view that the universe is anonymous and incomprehensible and dangerous while at the same time beautiful is in full force. I don’t think those who wrote and produced the film meant Annihilation to be wholly understandable, which why they gave it an ambiguous ending that I will not describe here.
After the film I found myself feeling thankful that the transcendent God I worship actually does make sense. We may not know what his plans are, but we know he has them. We may be incapable of comprehending all of his thoughts, but we know that he has thoughts and that from his infinite perspective, they make sense. Which is far better than contemplating a universe in which beautiful things simply exist and we will never understand why, things that are beyond us, but at the same time mostly dangerously disinterested in us–things that are incapable of being interested in us.
This condition of a malignant, albeit transcendent indifference, which actually makes sense if you presume we live in a self-generating universe, is the real source of the terror in Annihilation. Thank God (literally) that his transcendence is of an altogether different type.