Genre: Science Fiction, Drama
Director: Alex Garland
Stars: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, David Gyasi, Benedict Wong
Bias: I've loved Alex Garland's work since I first read The Beach, many years ago. Although I thought Sunshine went off the rails in its third act, I would argue that Ex Machina is a perfect science fiction film. Given all that, I went into this film with very high hopes.
In a Nutshell: The film opens with John Hopkins professor and biologist Lena (Portman), one year after her husband Kane (Isaac) has gone missing in action while on a top-secret mission. Presuming him to be dead, Lena struggles to move on with her life. But then, Kane suddenly arrives home... just not fully himself. When it becomes clear that Kane is severely ill, Lena calls an ambulance, which is ambushed on the way to the hospital. Kane and Lena are taken to a secret military base, just outside of "the shimmer" - a bizarre atmospheric anomaly that the military is trying to study and contain as it spreads through a remote swamp area. The catch: every team that enters the shimmer has failed to return a single member, except Kane. Hoping that by volunteering to explore and research the shimmer she will find crucial information to help save her dying husband, Lena joins a group of women – including a psychologist, a physicist, a geologist, and a paramedic - and heads into the anomaly. What the crew finds there is equal parts beautiful and disturbing.
The Critique: Let's start with the good stuff. Annihilation is the rare science fiction film with a majority female cast; all of the women on the recon team are highly trained in diverse fields across science, technology, and medicine. The group is also diverse in terms of racial make-up, sexual orientation, and family status. All of the characters have experienced or are experiencing something traumatic – hence their willingness to sign up for a "suicide mission" - but they aren't defined by those traumas. Although the film definitely explores some complicated philosophical questions, it is equally interested in quietly probing the human mind as it experiences grief, loss, and fear. The best moments in the film occur when the women attempt to negotiate the strangeness of their new surroundings and each other.
In addition to the innovations Annihilation makes in terms of casting and character development, the film also develops a science fiction world - the world inside the shimmer - that forces the viewer to reconsider their own preconceptions of what it means to be human. Within the shimmer, bodies and minds are penetrated, infiltrated, and altered. The film's tagline coyly urges the audience to "fear what's inside," which takes on a new meaning when it is revealed that [SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON] the shimmer is actually a prism, refracting not just light and sonic waves but everything: time; memories; human, animal, and plant DNA. The impermeability of the human - a social construct that says "I am me because I am separate from others and from the world" - is deconstructed and the "human" becomes both mutable and duplicable. At first the characters fear what is inside the shimmer; speculating that previous teams may have gone insane and killed each other inside the anomaly, they also fear what the shimmer will do to them once they are inside it. What they don't expect is that when they enter the shimmer, it also enters them - everything within the shimmer is refracted back onto/into its habitants, creating an infinite feedback loop of pure information.
This is where the film begins to falter, though. Rather than establishing the shimmer as a prism and letting the philosophical and ethical ramifications work themselves out in the mind of the audience, Garland chooses to literalize the conflict between self and other, canny and uncanny, in a final "battle scene" between Lena and her "double." Much like Garland's earlier effort, Sunshine (which he wrote and Danny Boyle directed), the third act of Annihilation starts to fall apart as the film transitions from smart, innovative science fiction into self-indulgent and gratuitous "look what we can do" film-making.
Despite the wavering in the final act of the film, I was very impressed with Annihilation overall. As a film scholar, I'm very excited about the prospect of writing on the film, especially regarding how it undermines anthropocentrism. As a fan of science fiction, I appreciate the innovative storytelling and world-building. As a feminist, I loved seeing Portman, Thompson, Leigh, Novotny, and Rodriguez kicking all sorts of ass. There is plenty to recommend in this film, even if it occasionally doesn't live up to the potential of its premise.
Shout-Out(s): The film features some truly beautiful production design. The flora and fauna inside the shimmer are gorgeously rendered, making this one of the prettiest science fiction films in recent memory (no oppressive gray skies or rainy cityscapes here).
To Go, Rent, or to Netflix: This one is worth seeing on the big screen for the visual design and effects, but otherwise I'd have been happy waiting a few months to stream it.