Making Something New: Tracing the Complex Brilliance of ‘Annihilation’

“We have many theories, few facts.” -Dr. Ventress
Annihilation Sci Fi
By  · Published on February 27th, 2020

“Where to begin?” These words tumble out of my mouth each time someone asks what there is to celebrate about Alex Garland’s Annihilation. Dumbfounded and overwhelmed, a thousand responses knotting in my mind, I rarely offer a competent response. It’s a film about a cellular biologist (Natalie Portman) who enters a dangerous, anomalous, faintly rainbow electromagnetic forcefield called The Shimmer, which grew mysteriously from a meteorite. Joined by a psychologist, an anthropologist, a physicist, and a paramedic, she braves the unknown for the sake of scientific research. They’re the umpteenth team risking their lives to find out what The Shimmer is. But Lena (Portman) goes in because she feels she owes it to her husband (Oscar Isaac), the only human who’s gone in and come back out, albeit trans-mutated. In short, it’s a difficult film to summarize clearly, much less excavate on a critical level.

Answering for Annihilation’s brilliance is like standing in the middle of a complex maze with hundreds of miles of seemingly endless combinations of escape. No matter which way I turn, I’ll exit the maze. But in being asked to explain Annihilation’s singularity, I’m not being asked to merely exit the maze. I’m being asked to trace every possible way out. Each time I reach the end I have to turn around, retrace my steps back to the center, and do it again, this time differently.

Do I begin down the snaking path of humanity’s obsession with the unknown and turn left at the disquieting display of self-destruction? Or should I fork right at philosophical reflections on biology? Do I start towards its status as one of the few intelligent, dignifying female-driven films to come out of Hollywood in the past decade (four of the five most significant roles held by women, known and unknown, queer and straight, and of different ethnicities, varied worldviews)? And if so, which track do I take when the trail divides into dismantling patriarchal gender norms and theories of forthcoming human evolution?

I could exhaust one hundred different ways out with similar thoughts before touching on themes of ecological ethics or technological development. And if I was hospitalized in the process due to exhaustion, I’d be upset that we never breached the intersecting conversations between suicide, mimesis, interanimation, marriage, filtered vision, the metaphysical, and annihilation.

Garland’s sci-fi mind-bender is an intricately woven tapestry whose microscopic threads couldn’t be fully traced by anything short of a dissertation. Attempting to do so in the improvisational context of conversation or tedious texting is like, as the late Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) would say, “using confetti to test a hurricane.”

Annihilation has had a healthy post-release life—prominent critics live tweeting through it like a filmic investigation, publications devoting significant space to it regularly, programmers screening it at repertory theaters, et al. Most conversations I’ve had about it have been hyper. We bounce off the walls with appreciation until we get too tangled in abstractions and have to decompress. Or, at the very least, it piqued their interest. But occasionally, someone thinks it’s hot, fluffed up garbage.

Don’t get me wrong, I love well-founded dissenting critical opinion. It’s one of the main attractions to arts criticism. But it’s one thing to say you hate a film and another to say you think it’s bad. I’m not invested in whether or not someone likes the film. We all have different tastes. But there’s no denying Annihilation’s busy mind. Like the greatest works of art, it practically creates its own center of gravity. I admit that Some Like it Hot and Shakespeare’s Hamlet are masterpieces. I don’t like them, but I recognize their merit. Annihilation deserves to be recognized in its merit, regardless of whether it’s enjoyed or not.

But, like many, I struggle most to defend my favorite films, albums, artworks, novels, etc. You know the overwhelming feeling that favorites bring. Most of us can count on two hands the number of films that have stopped us cold in our tracks for months at a time. I could list hundreds of films that I adore, but only a few that mapped previously uncharted islands in my soul.

Barring occasional exceptions, my favorites become my favorites because they’re meaty. They offer an endless vault of thoughts to withdraw from for the rest of my life, each thought compounding the last and requiring further attention to what thoughts I’ve withdrawn before. They become some of the main avenues through which I shed the blinders of my perspective, learn to unlearn, and eventually grow. Annihilation joins the ranks of inexplicable treasures like Synecdoche, New York (2009), Mirror (1975), Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), The Tree of Life (2011), The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), and The Master (2012), to name a few—films that I’ll still be soaking in, marveling at, pondering, feeling, and quoting on my death bed, I imagine.

Annihilation is the cinematic Shimmer. Like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkosvky’s Solaris, Fassbinder’s World on a Wire, or Wenders’ Until the End of the World, it obliterates the sci-fi genre with motivations that will always be a touch out of reach, but, in doing so, it doesn’t necessarily destroy. It takes steps toward change, toward “making something new,” as Lena says of The Shimmer. The film doesn’t fit into the rubric of critical or personal appreciation that we typically process films by, just like Lena’s experience doesn’t fit the field processing questions Lomax (Benedict Wong) asks her (“Can you describe its form?” “No.” “Was it carbon based?” “I don’t know” “What did it want?” “I don’t think it wanted anything.”) Instead, it embraces what film studies professor Lisa Trahair calls a “film’s unparalleled capacity to convey the truth of life in its illogical, non-teleological, open-ended, and infinitely mutating glory.”

In other words, it’s less interested in giving answers and more interested in teaching us how to ask better questions. And there’s value in the way the narrative asks us to forget what we know and consider something ‘other,’ something we can’t predict or fully understand even after the credits have rolled. The sparse, lingering tone of the film isn’t born out of emptiness. It’s carefully crafted to abstain from finality, to perpetually stiff arm determinism in all of its ecological, ontological, anthropological, biological, and extra-terrestrial thought. The ethereal cinematography, stunning performances, incisive screenplay, visionary direction, colorful production design, etc. deserve chapters of their own in the Annihilation monograph. But if we stop at what we can see and hear, we’re low-balling Annihilation something awful. It’s a cerebral event, a thinking film, as film philosopher Gilles Deleuze would have it—dense, elusive, and thought-provoking.

Did you count the number of frames that were shot through shimmer-like substances (the paint guarder, Kane’s enclosing mini-Shimmer in the base’s hospital, or the glasses of water, for example)? Did you revisit the mimetic climax in its orchestral, triptych totality? Did you stop to consider the majestic moments that reference sci-fi of the past or fashion filmic entities that we’ve yet to imagine so prolifically on screen? Like Josie’s (Tessa Thompson) “death.” Although, that’s a retrogressive way to think about it. She tells Lena, “Ventress wants to face it. You want to fight it. But I don’t think I want either of those things.” She doesn’t die. She changes. Maybe she evolves. What about the annihilation of Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh)? That can’t really be called death either. She changes. Maybe she evolves in a different way. Maybe she devolves?

What about Kane’s appearance at the beginning of the film? Where did he come from? We see him walk up the steps, but when asked how he got there, he says he just recognized her in the room, implying that he saw her from inside The Shimmer and somehow stepped out of it and into terrestrial reality. We don’t know it upon first viewing, but the minute detail introduces the metaphysical aspect of The Shimmer, i.e. Garland’s impressive ability to toy with time and space. Most prominently, do we know what The Shimmer was? Do we even have a decent idea of what it was? An organic entity? Substance? An alien? A cosmic force? What did it create? Lena wondered if the products were corruptions or duplicates of form, hallucinations, or echoes. Does The Shimmer have a real world parallel? If so, what? If not, when was the last time a film presented you with the essence of a thing that you could not parallel to the real world?

On top of everything else, who other than Garland has attempted this style of what he calls “dream” adaptation, purposefully abstaining from re-reading the text in order to infuse his own dream-like originality? What other films have gone toe-to-toe with major Hollywood executives and won final cut? (All hail, Scott Rudin, producer and prophet) How many other major-studio-distributed films are bold enough to leave us without answers, to open doors without closing them? How often does a wide-release film carry the mental depth and viscosity of Annihilation without sacrificing the humanity behind it all, or vice-versa.

So, as you’ve probably realized by now, this isn’t the careful examination of seemingly infinite detail that Garland’s masterwork deserves. It’s an explanation of why even the most intricate short essay would leave me dissatisfied with my justification of the film’s brilliance. Because I know I couldn’t capture it all in that format, and I don’t want to spend the next 5+ years of my life buried in doctoral studies. But I can point you toward literature that illumines some of the film’s most labyrinthine thoughts.

Read Keith Basso’s eco-anthropological essay “Wisdom Sits in Places,” Donna J. Haraway’s essay collection Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed, or bell hooks’s text on Belonging. Any paragraph of the aforementioned will start to add thickness to the film. They’ll help you re-consider the way you evaluate the film altogether. Maybe they’ll help you unveil the film’s profundity, or maybe Annihilation just isn’t for you and that’s alright, too. But don’t tell me it’s bad.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.