annihilation the shimmer

Early in Alex Garland’s adaptation of Annihilation, the five women sent to explore the environmental disaster zone known as the Shimmer wake to discover that they’ve lost time. It’s not that they’ve overslept or miscalculated their route through the growth. They’ve simply forgotten. They don’t remember setting up camp, nor how they got to where they are, but their diminished rations suggest that they’ve been traveling for a few days already. Maybe saying that they’ve lost time is incorrect — rather, the Shimmer has taken time from them.

It’s a small moment, but it’s terrifically unsettling, and easily one of the best moments in the film. Annihilation’s most wonderful parts are all similarly elegant and strange, embracing mystery without feeling the need to overexplain it. The movie plays like a dream, at times verging upon a nightmare as layers of the unknown peel back to reveal something both completely alien and horrifyingly familiar underneath. But there’s still something missing. The problem is not that there’s no explanation for it all. It’s that it’s not explored deeply enough. Is it greedy of me to have wished for more?

Adapted from the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation offers up an almost infinite number of tantalizing fragments, but fails to fully develop almost any of them. Like the things in the Shimmer itself, it’s constantly mutating, and some of what it leaves behind is not necessarily for the better. The story weaves in and out, too, not just through flashbacks but through moral threads that suggest different plots before coalescing into one. It’s an adventure movie, a romance, a horror — to this end, at least, Annihilation is more successful, as its overarching examination of self-identity manages to bring each of those pieces together.

Lena (Natalie Portman) sits in a quarantined room, undergoing interrogation as to her recent trip into the Shimmer. Nothing has ever come back from the Shimmer except for her — and except for her husband (Oscar Isaac), who suddenly reappeared after having been presumed missing in action, and promptly fell into a coma upon his return. Naturally, when given the opportunity, Lena is compelled to go into the Shimmer, herself, becoming the fifth member of a team comprised of Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and Cass (Tuvav Novotny).

The Shimmer, which is indicated by a dome that looks like an oil slick with its rainbow saturation turned up to eleven, almost immediately begins to bombard the explorers with strange things. The further they go, the stranger the Shimmer becomes, to a point that is almost intoxicating. Ultimately, the imagery isn’t significantly different from most other science fiction disaster landscapes in that what’s been tweaked is essentially just the color palette, but it’s almost enough to obliterate any complaint.

The characters, however, can’t quite skate by on the same metric. Perhaps obviously, the clunkiest parts of Annihilation are those spent outside the Shimmer, as backstories and motivations are set up and put into motion. I’d rather get to know Lena on Lena’s own terms rather than have to go through her husband, and I’d like to think that women would volunteer for a seemingly incompletable mission without having to be somehow “broken.” Throughout the film, I kept thinking that I had dreamt of all-female versions of Predator that had looked pretty much like this. Needless to say, they hadn’t included the particular stipulation that Annihilation places upon them (and, as seen in the original film, wouldn’t, if they were all men).

It’s also a pity that Thompson and Rodriguez are given relatively little to do, as they’ve both proven themselves stars who deserve better than playing means to an end. Rodriguez, at least, is given the meat of one of the most terrifying sequences in the film (as well as playing a character who’s a polar opposite from Jane the Virgin), but they feel underserved, though not as disposable as David Gyasi as one of Lena’s colleagues, and the diverse group of students we see Lena teaching near the beginning of the film.

This, of course, brings up the slightly thornier issues surrounding Annihilation. It is, without a doubt, a science fiction movie that shatters expectations for the genre, especially for a studio movie, and stunningly made to boot, but it feels disingenuous to discuss it without also discussing its context, and its failures in that respect.

Art and its historical and cultural context are inextricable in a way that’s often difficult to parse. It’s an issue that’s perhaps more tangibly illustrated by considering the curation of art exhibitions: the lack of curation — whether it’s in terms of the art displayed or the space in which it’s presented — is still curation in and of itself, i.e. as much as you might want to curb any outside influence or discussion, it still exists. So too is it difficult — impossible? — to discuss Annihilation without also acknowledging that Portman and Leigh were cast as characters who were written as Asian and half-Native American. Though Garland and the rest of the production team may simply not have known that to be the case, and though the novel is vastly different from the film it has spawned, it’s still symptomatic of a larger problem that has, by and large, been given a pass. The fact that there are so many good things in Annihilation only complicates things further, as it becomes easier for many to excuse a bad thing, especially as it seems to have been done with good intentions.

Still, my overall point remains the same. The problem is not a lack of explanation but a lack of exploration; in a world so strange, there should be more in all senses of the word. More strangeness, more strength for the sake of strength, more representation. If the monsters and mirrors that seem to be a constant in the genre can so constantly mutate, why can’t we?

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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About the Author

Karen Han is a writer based in New York, via the midwest. She writes about film, TV, and Tintin, among other things.