Annihilation is a dark look at the limits of life in everything - from the human body to plant life. Life is genetically programmed to destroy itself eventually, but that's only if we don't get to ourselves or our planet first.
The film, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer looks at life's ultimate inevitability - death. VanderMeer is known for his profound and disturbing literary creations, The New Yorker dubbed him the "King of Weird Fiction", if you've read his books - you'll know why. The first part of his Southern Reach Trilogy is now in the cinema and on Netflix. For many people that will be a gateway into his work. One that doesn't close when it's been opened.
Director Alex Garland (of Ex Machina fame) has created a science-fiction mind-meddler about the limits and forms that destruction can take - and to counterbalance that, the oddly beautiful things that can come from it. The film features a mysterious iridescent light emanating around a lighthouse called the 'shimmer'. The shimmer is dazzling, easily one of cinema's most novel visualisations of what form extraterrestrial/ otherworldly life might take. Within the shimmer, ones life becomes parallel to outside goings on - time moves faster, accelerating decay and cells multiply and transform in unpredictable ways.
Limited to only a relatively small area of the United States, the shimmer is seen as a sort of tumour for its behaviour and consequences. The changes inside it are mutations. The usual process of biological cell-division that keeps us alive becomes confused and inverted. Dangerous free-radicals roam the lands, taking the form of plants that grow into the shape of humans or creatures that mimic their victim's cry.
One interpretation of the film imagines the shimmer as an extraterrestrials way of waging biological warfare on earth. Given that they've been clever enough to make it to earth, it isn't a stretch to imagine that they're smart enough to spend a bit of time watching over us. One thing that consistently kills and terrifies, often in the most heartbreaking ways is cancer. That's what these aliens have given earth. Anything that enters this shimmery rainbow-like dreamworld is subject to the unpredictable nature of the disease.
Without giving away too much, the effects that this growth has on life are myriad. It's a land that adheres to its own laws - visually stunning, it's a realisation of the human imagination stretched to breaking-point. It's exactly what you'd expect from the man that wrote The Beach when he was travelling Thailand as a young guy, then the script for 28 Days Later before his last effort with Ex Machina. In many ways it has all of this - human tenderness, rampant disease and the fear brought on by loss of control.
Like that Ex Machine, this work is powerful - it takes a theme that affects everyone's life to some degree and imagines where it could go in the future. That's what he's done here. Instead of aliens coming down and blasting laser beams while raining fire - they're more imaginative and dare I say, lifelike in there destruction. That they'd mirror something as devastating as cancer, something that remains without a kill-all cure, is scary. We really don't know the potential of the other life that might be out there.
Besides their destruction - the film also focuses on self-destruction. The people that enter the shimmer, our protagonists, all have their methods of hurting themselves - just like pretty much all of us who will watch it. One self-harmed, one was a substance abuser and another was a cheater - they're all behaviours that we enact with a short-term reward in mind - things that in the long term have the potential to ruin us. These flaws, although lacking in subtlety, makes the characters plight and their own reasons for embarking on the job, all the more relatable.
Given the theme of self-destruction - we never stray off the path of it's twin - addiction. The war being waged isn't just physical, it's also an environment and ecological one that ushers in blistering psychological effects. Drugs and sex are obvious addictions, but what about mindless consumption and our insatiable desire to own more things?. Think of all the televisions we've owned, or the packets of food that we've thrown out - there's somewhere now, in some form. When we destroy our planet, we aren't the primary victims, or certainly not the most immediately affected - so we just tend not to notice our impact. As if mirroring our wilful wipe-out tactics on earth - the aliens shimmer mirrors that too. The earth itself is victim to strange growths and confused cellular activity.
Are the extra-terrestrials that cursed the planet with the shimmer really so sadistic? Don't we do all these things to ourselves anyway? Alex Garland has held up a mirror with Annihilation and we're seeing the ugliness of our ways.
As a film it plays out like Apocalypse Now, a study of the psychological implications that a devastating event can have. It's also a way for the director to explore many great themes - a modern day allegory. The strength of working on both aspects means that the film never devolves into a simplistic ideas-piece. With Garland's talent for direction it's as thoroughly entertaining as it is shocking.
If we look around at how we treat ourselves and the world, if we can improve on that - maybe we'd manage to avoid this kind of fate. This is what the film is telling us. Kudos to the the directors and his crew for making the film so beautiful - just don't let that fool you.
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