Alex Garland’s latest feature film, post Ex-Machina, dropped on Netflix last week to varied reviews. Some are calling it incomprehensible, some are calling it a standout sci-fi of our time. It’s been heavily implied by others that Annihilation is the first true Anthropocene sci-fi film. I would argue that there are only really two sci-fi films which closely examine humanity as a part of the geology and history of earth, and the effect we have had on the planet and ourselves. The first one would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the second would be Annihilation.
The two are not dissimilar. Garland borrows many motifs, scenarios and characteristics from critically acclaimed sci-fi films that have gone before him. Borrows is perhaps a too simple word here – Garland extracts these motifs audiences have come to know so well, and re-purposes them within Annihilation, giving the audience a sense of familiarity and originality at the same time. Before delving into how Annihilation examines the heart of humankind like Kubrick does, it’s interesting to look at the elements that Garland uses from films such as Alien, Contact, Arrival and others, but particularly how he changes them.
The similarities to Alien are instantly noticeable. Ridley Scott’s space-horror sets up a crew, each character with defining characteristics – the working class engineers worried about their paychecks, the introverted scientist (turned android), the terrified and incapable woman, and Ripley herself – the Strong Female Character. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these characters, but they are very clearly defined to fit into a particular category. Garland, initially, does the same. Natalie Portman is Lena, a guilt-ridden scientist and military veteran. We would expect her to be the hothead, due to her military background, but Lena is calm and collected. Gina Rodriquez’s paramedic Anya is, at first, is the glue which holds the group together but soon finds herself unravelling in the absurdity and confusion of The Shimmer. Josie (Tessa Thompson), the physicist is introverted and shy, speaking far less than the rest of the group. There’s an expectation that Josie will follow the leaders of the group (Ventress and Lena) but Josie eventually makes her own very unique decision, and one that feels like the end of a very complete character arc. In a different way, anthropologist Cass appears to be the guiding voice of reason, a wise character who will continue to support the group until the very end. Of course, Cass is the first of the group to die, leaving the rest of the team in an uneasy tension.
Finally, Dr Ventress. A psychologist who is leading the group, Dr Ventress has been watching and directing expeditions into the Shimmer since it began. She positions herself away from the group, not joining in with any social activities. It’s notable also that, even when the other women are in life threatening danger, Ventress does not attempt to help them. When Josie is pulled into the lake by an alligator, the other women rally around to pull her out and drag her to safety. Not Ventress. Instead, she watches from the back of the half submerged boating shed. There’s a strong indication from the very beginning that Ventress has a different purpose for this mission – not least because of her cool, emotionally removed manner that Jennifer Jason-Leigh portrays so well. She is not a part of the group, often signified by her physical distance from the others.
This is a typical element of science fiction – the one member of the ‘group’ is not aligned with everyone else. Their mission (as in Alien) may even go against the wellbeing and safety of the rest of the team. Garland strongly introduces this idea with Ventress, but never goes so far as to confirm if this is really the case. Rather than revealing this information, Ventress disappears into the world of The Shimmer, becoming one with it – now unable to communicate any personal desires or missions of her own. Essentially, any purpose or ulterior motive that may have existed, is no longer.
This lack of confirmation ties in with the ambiguity of Annihilation as a whole. The film is told through a flashback – Lena is recounting the events to a fellow scientist in isolation on her return from The Shimmer. We learn, before we have even met them, that many of the group are dead. To the fate of the others, Lena responds that she doesn’t know. This a risky tactic – what will hold the viewer’s attention if they already know how this will end? In Annihilation, however, these early reveals actually help to heighten the ambiguity of what is to come. Lena seems unsure about the order of events, of what happened to her peers and even what happened to her. She is not the strong or confident biologist that we see in the first of the flashbacks – teaching a class, painting her house or consoling her husband. She’s different. How did she become different? What happened in The Shimmer? These are the questions that are unearthed at the beginning of the film. Depending on the reading of the film, it’s possible that none of these questions are ever answered. What is clear, though, is humanity’s own hand in what could be its downfall.
When Lena finally reaches the cavern under the lighthouse, what is assumed to be the heart of The Shimmer, she finds Ventress who has also evolved into part of the alien landscape too. As she struggles to understand the implications of this, the figure turns towards Lena and the two fight. As the entity absorbs a drop of blood from Lena, it creates a duplicate of her which begins to mirror her every move.
The mirroring movements lead Lena to be pinned to the door by her duplicate, who is following Lena’s attempts to escape. It is Lena’s own actions which are bearing down on her, closing the door, it’s Lena’s own inner guilt, inner turmoil which is stopping her from being able to carry on. The duplicate copies all of Lena’s behaviours. It is non-threatening but is dangerous because Lena herself is. Lena, who it is revealed is harbouring guilt for cheating on her husband, is harbouring grief at her husband’s imagined death on the previous mission. and feels that her affair caused him to take that mission. She views herself as a destroyer – of both her husband and her relationship. In copying her DNA (as we can assume it has done), the alien also copies all of this pain and suffering that Lena is carrying with her. It is Lena herself who is the enemy, her destructive DNA now imprinted in the world of The Shimmer and the alien life within it.
What is perhaps the most important part of Annihilation is the design. The imagery of DNA merging, nature evolving and changing is so integral to understanding how The Shimmer operates, and what that means for the humans within it. Visually, Garland and the design team have created an enticing and beautiful world. Even the parts that are scary or unnerving are laced with things which humanity usually reveres as beautiful, fragile or representative of purity. Unlike many of its predecessors, Annihilation shows the alien space (The Shimmer, the lighthouse etc) to be a place of momentous wonder. It’s filled with colourful flowers, evolved elements of fauna that have spread in beautiful patterns across the area. Even within the swimming pool scene, where the group find the remnants of a previous crew member, has a certain tenderness. The crew member whose DNA is irrevocably intertwined with nature is horrifying, yet also strangely alluring to look at. It feels like art.
Is Annihilation an allegory for how humanity is more destructive of itself than any alien species ever could be? Garland’s film certainly leads us down that path, and portrays this idea more fully and artistically than any sci-fi film that has come before it.