Change is a scary thing. Evolution in our brain’s synapses, physical growth or decay as part of our natural human state, succumbing to our surrounding environments or circumstances. Alex Garland’s Annihilation continues his career long fascination with closing people off from an outside world and turning them into something else entirely. This can be found most prominently in his directorial work, Ex Machina and his unofficial directing credit on Dredd, but it’s also a thematic through-line on his writing work from 28 Days Later to Sunshine. His writing puts protagonists with a problem through metaphorical meat-grinders with few moments of solace. A viciousness that permeates every line of dialogue until the closing frames. His protagonists look back on the experience as something horrifying but something that made them ultimately stronger. But Garland has found another angle in his directorial work. What if he put them through severe changes in Ex Machina and Annihilation, and it wasn’t clear whether or not coming out the other side was any better? What if our perception of change was fluid and our understanding of it was void?
Garland re-teams with his Ex Machina cinematographer, Rob Hardy and the duo remains stunning. Hardy utilizes classical cinematic lens flares in a world where there shouldn’t be any, texturing a digital image with something that feels grounded and otherworldly. A perfect fit for a film that takes place almost entirely in marshlands. Or would they still considered that? The environments are captured as something both ripe and dreary. The deeper the cast go into the area dubbed “The Shimmer,” the more alien their surroundings become.
Annihilation pontificates not the vastness of space but rather the vastness within ourselves. Natalie Portman’s character, Lena, leads a cast of characters entirely filled with baggage. Each one responding differently to the Shimmer’s evolutionary traits. Lena has a distant relationship with her husband, quite literally but also emotionally, and finds momentary physical comfort in a colleague. She’s a shell of her former self, so eventually, that is what she must confront in the Shimmer’s rainbow tinted darkness. Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) holds a secret for her desire to see the Shimmer, she has cancer and hopes to find an answer or semblance of peace in the Shimmer’s foundry; so Ventress is annihilated by the entity’s womb. Anya Thorsensen (Gina Rodriguez) is an adventurous junkie, so she loses her mind, raging until it leads to her death. Cass Shepard (Tuva Novotny) is taken by a creature of the shimmer early on, feeling fear and pain for the loss of her daughter earlier, so her screams remain within the beast that killed her. Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) is the most fascinating character and also possibly the most individually tragic. A more subdued character, bearing the literal markings of attempted suicide, Josie perceives her surrounding team as all trying to fight against, or through, the Shimmer in their own ways. She doesn’t want that. So she welcomes it and vanishes within it, her final act of free will to give it up entirely.
More on Josie’s passing, her moment is a quiet one. Because we never truly see it. We know it’s come, similar vegetation implied to be other people embracing the life of the Shimmer, but it’s a moment of “show, don’t tell” practically unorthodox for a major studio science fiction film. We cut only to Lena searching for the last sane member of the team in a field of green, surrounded by life and also none to share. It’s the final steps of Annihilation’s endgame, stripping Lena down for a final confrontation.
There’s an atmosphere present here reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker or Solaris, a film using mood and visuals to tell its story to its fullest potential. No words. Only sound of the surrounding environments and alien landscapes in what was once understandable through our earthly perspectives. Lena’s confrontation with the creature, an alien, the creation and creator of The Shimmer itself, is not one of action. Lena’s fight has always been with herself, so she literally fights an alien shadow replication of her own identity. But it’s not her own self. Change is everlasting. Something to be admired when it’s for the better. Something to be feared when it’s done the worst. Lena’s screams, bullets and physical rebukes are fruitless. Lena cannot destroy the worst version of herself until she first accepts herself. Hand in hand, Lena detonates an incendiary explosive grenade. Her exploratory journey through self-destruction has reached its end, and the Shimmer begins to vanish.
Annihilation doesn’t declare the Shimmer as something good or bad. We came across several monstrous incarnations of animals in the wild of the Shimmer, but we also came across beauty. Lena walking across the beach, rainbow rays refracting on the sand. Two mutating white deer with flowers blooming on their antlers, running in tandem with one another. Annihilation doesn’t want us to fear change. Its views change as something possibly alien, but never unnecessary. Annihilation puts the perception entirely on the viewer, as Lena and her husband, shadow selves or not, prepare to enter a new stage of their lives together.
As Lena reunites with what she has discovered is the mirror-self of her husband, she asks him who he is. Her husband doesn’t know if he’s her husband. He asks her the same. The two embrace and their eyes begin to shimmer.