Subject to Change

Annihilation is a difficult film to review

Annihilation is a difficult film to review. This isn’t to say that my reaction to it is mixed or ambiguous. I loved it, tremendously, and strongly recommend you do the same. What makes reviewing the film difficult has to do with those two ubiquitous words in criticism nowadays: spoiler alert. Anytime you read a review of a film or a TV show or virtually any narrative medium, you’ll encounter this warning. Generally it’s made in good faith, out of a desire to ensure that the moviegoer enters the experience as fresh as possible. 

A lot happens in this movie. You’d think this would require a standard issue spoiler alert. But that’s where it gets tricky. I don’t think I can properly warn you about letting you know what happens in the movie. That’s because I’m still not entirely sure entirely what happens. And I’ve seen it twice! It’s a mysterious, open-ended film, and that’s what makes it so good. 

Let me start anyway. Based on the novel by Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation is director Alex Garland’s film about a strange location in the Florida panhandle known as Area X. Three years ago, an event of some sort began altering the natural properties of the area. Scientists at a government research facility called the Southern Reach began investigating Area X, but discovered little. Surrounding Area X is what’s known as the Shimmer. It looks like an enormous soap bubble, and it forms a dome over the entirety of Area X, blocking all radio waves and video signals. The only way to explore Area X is to physically enter it.

 
  

This is where the characters come in. Lena, played by Natalie Portman, is a professor of biology. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), is a soldier who’s been missing for the last 12 months. She’s received no explanation as to the nature of his mission. One day, Kane reappears in her home. She asks him where’s he’s been and what his mission was. He’s unable to give an answer. He becomes ill, and Lena calls an ambulance. But on their way to the hospital, they’re intercepted by representatives of the Southern Reach. Lena learns that Kane went into Area X and disappeared. Out of a desire to learn what’s afflicted her husband – and to satisfy her own sense of urgency – Lena crosses the Shimmer into Area X with four other women. 

It’s here that the film kicks into high gear, and also where it becomes pleasingly difficult to understand precisely what’s happening. Lena and the other women discover that Area X is having a bizarre effect on the natural world. Alligators begin growing shark teeth. Vines sprout flowers from many different species, a seemingly impossible act. Soon the changes taking place in the natural environment begin appearing among the women themselves, causing some of them to worry about their mental state while others find the changes liberating. 

Indeed, change is the overriding theme of the story, and not just at the individual level. Annihilation is, in part, about the natural environment undergoing radical change, and the subsequent changes that are visited upon its inhabitants. Part of the changes seem to evolve traits and characteristics being swapped among different creatures and species. A pair of deer sprout flowers from their antlers; a mysterious tattoo shows up on the arms of the different women at different points. 

Certainly you can see all this interpersonal and environmental mutation as a metaphor for climate change. The strange, even dangerous effects that a radically altered environment has on its inhabitants, animal and human both, have a clear analog in melting ice caps and rising oceans. But what makes the film effective is that you can extend the metaphor in many different directions. You could also read Area X as a stand-in for the internet, a place where humans enter only to find themselves altered and stretched, their identities becoming enmeshed with other groups. Who hasn’t logged onto Facebook only to find one’s relatives have mutated into unrecognizable creatures?

But with Facebook, you have a general idea why everyone’s personalities are being shaped and altered. (To make Mark Zuckerberg money, of course.) In the case of Area X, what is the reasoning behind the mutations? Who or what is causing them, and why? It spoils little to tell you that the movie doesn’t really answer these questions. Even the most straightforward answer – that an alien presence is causing the changes – is left open-ended. What Lena encounters at the film’s climax, in a lighthouse where the Shimmer originated, is a strange being that mirrors her every movement. It looks like an interpretive dance performance scored to synth-heavy electronica, and it is astonishing. 

As compelling as the ending is, it’s still hard to know what to make of it. Lena is clearly changed at the end of the movie, perhaps literally, on a cellular level. But to what end? Honestly I found my mind drifting toward more prophetic interpretations, which seems unusual. It’s not a “message” movie in any sort of clear-cut way, given as it is to strangeness and ambiguity. But there’s a strong note of urgency that is unmistakable. 

The world is undergoing change at a profound level, perhaps in ways we can’t understand. Ecologically, politically, you name it. The film seems to suggest that humans need to change along with it if we’re going to survive. Actually, it suggests that humans don’t quite have it in them to change on their own. What they really need to do is to let themselves be changed by the changing world, remade according to its logic, so they can survive in the coming world. 

That’s why the very title of the movie doesn’t apply to Area X itself. Yes, the Shimmer is altering the landscape, and all the life found there. But it is not destroying it. The ones committing destruction, the movie implies, are the human beings, mismanaging natural resources, polluting streams and fields. Some sort of change is necessary, and if a meteor has to crash into a lighthouse to bring that change about, so be it.

I fear I’m making this movie sound more didactic than it is. It really is a strange, exhilarating experience  that offers mystery more than explanation. But that means that viewers have to do a little more work to come to their own conclusions, and doing that work, makes them much more invested in those ideas. I know that was my experience, and that alone is enough to recommend it. You may enjoy it, you may not, but I guarantee you’ll have something to think about.  

  • Adam’s work has appeared in many venues, including the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature and Real Life. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and two daughters.

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