Writer-director Alex Garland follows up his excellent 2015 science-fiction film about artificial intelligence, “Ex Machina”, with a much more ambitious and bold film, “Annihilation”, a cerebral look at stasis and change, growth and stagnation, and humanity’s inclination towards self-destruction.
Garland’s writing is strong, but his direction rarely embodies the imaginative nature of the premise (apart from some lingering lens flares thematically fitting with how much the film revolves around literal refraction), a group of military scientists entering a growing quarantined dead zone of mutations and mystery. Most of the film’s aesthetic creativity actually coming from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score, but sci-fi veterans Natalie Portman and Oscaar Isaac anchor the story very well.
As with “Ex Machina”, Garland’s script for “Annihilation” feels classically sci-fi in all but begging audiences to apply their own allegories and metaphors to it. The ideas at play here are cycles, growth, mimicry, change, self-destruction…in a macro sense the film could be read as the story of the universe, singularity exploding in the Big Bang, the great act of growth and creation, total erasure of whatever came before but growth everpresent in the creation of new things through celestial elements smashing together until they eventually endure as planets and so on. Portman’s character extends this to the birth of life in the universe too – “All cells come from a singular organism from this planet, maybe the universe”. The film arguably charts a reprise of that sort of act of origination.
Cancer metaphors come easily too, especially as the film basically opens on exposition about cancer. Ageing is represented as disease-like as well, characters expressing distaste for how decay and death are seen as a good thing inherent to the human experience. The ending of the film promises change one way or another, but perhaps not in the sense that Oscar Isaac’s character – the man to say “God doesn’t make mistakes” – would be fond of.
Perhaps more specifically, the film reflects ego death, as one character comes to perceive the way the alien presence in the film collapses consciousnesses together, fuses them, arguably erases individuality through its pursuit of mimicry and synthesis, as reflecting consciousness inherently being mimicry. That sort of mindfulness and recognition of the futility of one’s ego falls on deaf ears to most of the characters in the film, as the alien presence refracts the self-destructive natures of the sort of people who’d willingly enter such a dangerous zone in the first place. Portman’s character is as self-destructive as anyone, but lacks a death wish like the other characters, and the film gets a lot of mileage out of that difference. Her mantling and acceptance of change as an essential part of life seems the closest thing the film has to a thesis statement.
Depression and grief perhaps fit most directly as the allegory the film is working with – periods of pain and self-destruction so intense time feels distorted, communication the outside world is cut off, memories and perception of self become warped, and so on, all stages with easy parallels in the film, some even explicit in the text. If depression, humanity’s self-destructive nature and so on are the “enemy”, it’s no coincidence what form the antagonistic forces of the film end up taking in the final act. Garland earns how zany the film gets in the third act, and it’s to the film’s credit that it follows through on its more complicated implications. It’s wonderful to see well-made, heady science-fiction made at such a level as this. Four warped cries for help, and a yao guai.