Reflection, Refraction, Mutation: Alex Garland’s ‘Annihilation’

Reviews / April 17, 2018

Annihilation
Directed by Alex Garland
Paramount Pictures, 2018

For reasons I no longer remember, when I was little I sometimes used to rewrite from memory stories that had had a particularly profound effect on me. The Wind in the Willows was one, the film of The First Men in the Moon, Star Wars and Blade Runner and Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds (I did say things that had a particularly profound effect, not necessarily things that were actually profound). Why I did it I don’t know—maybe it was a way to possess the story? To have a version of the narrative that was filtered through myself? I stumbled across a couple of them recently while cleaning out some boxes in my dad’s garage and reading them was a very odd experience: the versions I’d written followed the general direction of the story, but shifted the focus onto the things that obsessed me, and an odd hybrid emerged. It was like looking at a room you know through the short side of a prism, and watching as the narrative light takes on an alien glow and is distorted into weird shapes. Alex Garland has stated that his film Annihilation is “an adaptation of my memory of the novel,” and perhaps this is part of the reason it had such a powerful impact on me.

I watched Annihilation without having read the book it’s nominally based on or knowing anything about it except for a trailer that I’d seen and hadn’t much liked. I’d expected to hate it, and instead came out of it feeling profoundly moved. It also didn’t leave me with any desire to read the books. In fact, it cancelled out any curiosity I’d felt about them: I’m sure they’re great, but the film satisfied me, completely.

Garland—who in interviews comes across as a refreshingly grumpy bastard—and I are the same age, both born in 1970. I don’t want to claim any spurious affinity, but perhaps the Britain we both grew up in—a place that was increasingly shedding the post-war social contract and titillating its children with ephemera at the same time the growing threat of nuclear was underlining just how ephemeral all that ephemera was—implies some kind of shared outlook. Garland’s nearest counterpart is probably Ben Wheatley, two years younger. Both make much of the fact that their films are not auteurial labors but partnerships or group efforts, and Wheatley seems like a genuinely decent, sincere person with all the right inspirations and intentions, yet for some reason I’ve never yet seen a film of his that I like: they all seem too much like clever-clever mash-ups of other things that never transcend their inspirations, despite the garlands—post-modernism posing as modernism. Garland, instead, seems to have an inexplicable hold over my imagination. Though he only wrote the screenplay for 2007’s Sunshine, that (in many ways awful) film’s immense Tangerine Dream LP cover-like vistas felt as though they owed more to him than they did to its actual director, the dread Danny Boyle. I’d watched his Dredd expecting to hate it—that, in fact, that was the principal reason I actually did watch it—only to be amazed by how it reworked and evoked the feelings the comic had inspired in me as a child, without making recourse to infantility or nostalgia. It was one of the few times I’d seen something you might call a reboot that actually carried off the conceit of taking a text—especially one as pulpy as Judge Dredd—and manipulating it so as to reveal something essential and still potent that the encrusted bulk of decades and overexposure had hidden beneath a layer of boredom. Bringing up Antonioni as a reference might be pushing it a bit but, in Dredd and, by proxy, in Sunshine, Garland seemed, like Antonioni, almost to be working backwards from images to content. I’d been much less taken by his Ex Machina, though, so the best I was expecting from Annihilation was indifference.

The plot of Garland’s Annihilation reads like a companion piece to Stalker, the 1979 film that director Andrei Tarkovsky based—very liberally—on the Strugatsky brothers’ 1971 science fiction novel Roadside Picnic. In the book, during a brief sojourn on Earth, alien visitors—or something—have created a “zone” dotted with incredible artifacts. The novel’s title comes from the idea that, however world-altering the appearance of the “zone” might seem to humanity, to its makers it is probably of no more significance than a flattened patch of grass covered with litter made during some brief break in a journey. The film takes the Strugatsky’s sobering look at humanity’s delusions of centrality in the universe and bends it into a more symbolic, but equally compelling, shape.

In Annihilation, biologist and ex-soldier Lena (Natalie Portman) joins a team of four other scientists on the latest of a series of expeditions to investigate “Area X,” the film’s “zone.” Area X is now covered with the incomprehensible and expanding “Shimmer” that seems to have been triggered by a meteor striking a lighthouse. A member of a previous expedition that never emerged from the Shimmer, Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), reappeared unexpectedly after a year of silence—only to immediately fall very ill and be taken, along with Lena, to the research facility on the edge of Area X. Lena hopes to find some solution for Kane’s illness inside the Shimmer, and the other four women in the group also have their reasons for undertaking a mission they have every reason to believe they will never return from—especially the mission’s leader, psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ventress—as Burroughs, Ballard, and Cronenberg teach us, anyone introducing themselves as “Doctor something” invariably represents some strange force for change—has another motive for the journey besides discovering whether it is “a religious event, an extraterrestrial event, a higher dimension,” or something else again. Inside the Shimmer, time and direction grow tenuous and the team becomes increasingly disoriented as they make for the lighthouse, where the film concludes with a memorable evocation of alienness, of the pointlessness of trying to define what is not human in human terms.

The name of Lena’s cipher-like husband Kane resounds with pop culture echoes that feed back into the film—Citizen Hearst’s voraciously modern devouring of the world, the Nostromo’s Executive Officer in Alien, his insides alive with new life, the mutinous crew of the Caine, and the brother of Abel, the victorious half of that particular cellular division. As well as “adventuress,” Ventress recalls ventris, Latin for belly, womb, or offspring, while Lena could be read as an abbreviation of Elena or Helen—“the bright one”: guts, division, birth, murder, and a beacon.

By some strange cosmic series of coincidences, I watched Annihilation the same week that I’d finally seen a 1970 episode of British drama series Doomwatch set in a lighthouse; the same week I’d watched ten minutes of lighthouse-set Doctor Who story “Horror of Fang Rock“; the same week I saw an episode of The Goodies that was also set in a lighthouse. About the only lighthouse-related media activity I didn’t find myself accidentally indulging in was Fraggle Rock. I don’t know if there’s a lighthouse in the novel, or—if there is—whether it’s the Virginia Woolf-esque metaphor for the incursion of something new the way the one in Annihilation feels as though it might be. Lighthouses are beacons, as well as warnings and symbols of isolation, and this one appears to be all three.

Throughout the film, transparent layers of plastic or water cover, envelop, and separate, distorting and refracting what lies inside or behind them. In one scene, the expeditionary force comes across a house which, Solaris-like, resembles Lena’s own (and a similar scene also takes place in The Martian Chronicles), implying that the things we take for granted as unique—our homes, ourselves—may be just variations on some basic theme, easily repeated, easily mutated, distorted. Nothing special, really. The appearance of the Shimmer itself resembles a sheet of Giger-esque soap bubbles rising into the heavens, everything within it taking on hints of spectral iridescence, and is a brilliantly-conceived way to evoke a kind of slightly-alienated childlike awe. Apart from the occasional bit of ropey-looking set dressing, all the Shimmer’s effects on the physical world are rendered in convincing tones of distressingly-lush, Max Ernst-like putrefaction.

Annihilation has the decaying, terminal grandeur of one of J.G. Ballard’s mid-’60s worlds, transmuting the Earth beautifully as they supplant and mutate what was there before, unmaliciously following their genetic, biological, physical imperatives. The language the film uses to communicate this process is the imagery of a particular kind of surrealism: science fiction paperback art from that medium’s golden age, and half-remembered film stills glimpsed in SF and horror magazines. This isn’t a criticism—there’s something perceptive about this attempt to evoke a sense of vast cosmic possibility by using the mass-market, mind-altering art employed to attract those slightly too young to understand the ideas behind the cover. And anyway, the older I get, the more I feel that this artwork was often a truer representation of what SF books were (to my mind) about than the books themselves.

As I watched it, I jotted down a few of the names that Annihilation‘s images brought to mind: Space: 1999, The Thing, Wayne Barlowe’s Expedition, Creepshow, Alien, Quatermass, Doctor Who, Herzog, Upstream Colour, Prophecy, one particular issue of Marvel’s Empire Strikes Back comic, Insemnoid, electronic music group Future Sounds of London, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, three different versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Southern Comfort (as well as what I’m taking as a nod to Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell) and 1982’s Xtro, another profoundly odd film that, despite its many bizarre failings, is one of the few I’ve ever seen to communicate a genuine feeling of alienness. Whether all this is by intent, or the side-effect of Garland’s decision to filter the story through his own memories, or simply some form of pareidolia on my part, I don’t know. Though I might be making the film sound like some awful Ready Player One-like checklist of influences, that’s not how it feels. It feels like exactly the opposite of what shit like Ready Player One and its undigested regurgitation is—an attempt to synthesize something new from these influences, even at the risk of alienating those who love them. A reading of the source matter through the filter of the memories of how it felt to encounter it, something I last experienced with Beyond the Black Rainbow—another film I went into presuming it was going to be modish titillation mashup. Annihilation also shares with that film an infectious dreaminess that makes it difficult to avoid drifting off into your own personal reveries as it plays out. Some might say that means it’s a chore; I’m going to call it hypnagogic state-inducing.

The cast is uniformly great: Jennifer Jason Leigh continues to be as predictably brilliant as ever and, though I’d never really had much time for her before, Natalie Portman’s performance here was a total revelation to meThe soundtrack by composer Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow is great too, with an acoustic first half—which makes good use of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping”—transitioning through Moderat’s “The Mark” into something strange and alien for the film’s conclusion.

Any discussion of what Annihilation “means” or is “about” instinctively feels pointless, if not actually counterproductive, because its metaphorical openness lends itself to a lot of readings. Mention is repeatedly made of how the Shimmer doesn’t seem to want anything: the effect causing it has no agenda, no plan, because agendas and plans are human constructs. It is what it is. A reminder that life, that everything, is arbitrary, that there is no plan. Or is it speaking about that Woolf-ish, To the Lighthouse modernity and the way modernity and the new rewrite the world? Or about depression and loss? This lack of clear indications seems to have irritated some people: the criticisms I’ve read all complain that it doesn’t indulge in the silly mechanics of “story” or give you an answer. Good. Films that function in the realm of accessible pop culture but actually leave you going “fucking hell” at the end are few and far between.

For what my opinion’s worth, Annihilation is a powerful reflection upon change, mutation, destruction and transformation, guilt, the end of things large and small, the terror and beauty of the fact that, for all of our dreams of exceptionality, we humans are simply a minor, localized phenomenon. We exist by the grace of laws within our biology whose influence over us we’re reluctant to acknowledge, and (unless we do ourselves in first) we’ll continue to exist up until we encounter another physical phenomenon that changes or eliminates us, and that will be it—and in the grand scheme of things, it will make no difference. Annihilation feels oddly cleansing, both reassuring and frightening, its prism effect making the outlines of the themes it engages with hum with alien electricity—beautiful, transformative, and completely indifferent to the existence of the eye that is enchanted, and annihilated, by it.

Richard McKenna

3 thoughts on “Reflection, Refraction, Mutation: Alex Garland’s ‘Annihilation’

    • I don’t know that one, Peter, but I’ll look it up. It also occurs to me that The Fog, in its way, is another echo that’s in there.

      • Oh wow he’s right. Uzumaki is very similar in its themes, albeit in an even more progressively horrifying and ultimately incomprehensible way. A particular location, with a prominent lighthouse, falls under the influence of some unknown force that begins to change and reinterpret everyone and everything in pernicious ways yet according to a singular schema. Arguably Junji Ito’s most defining work, it provokes a binge-reading response in most who begin it. There was a movie (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0244870/), but like many manga adaptations it was unable to deal with the vast scope and seemingly aimless subplots that give the story its full distressingly manic effect.

        Going back to the idea in your article of how an individual can filter beloved and impactful images, concepts, and most importantly the affective sensations of experiences through themselves and into new creations, I have no idea what could have inspired or influenced Junji Ito to create Uzumaki or any of his other tales outside of a few fairly universal tropes in Japanese ghost stories. But even those are barely noticeable. Maybe he’s just weird and turned the prism on himself to create a vast array of horrific mutations out of his personal obsessions and observations.

        If you haven’t read some Ito books yet, you’ll probably have a lot of fun. There are a lot of fan favorites but my fave is The Town Without Streets (http://junji-ito-index.tumblr.com/post/12330695697).

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