Minor spoilers to follow.
When Darwinism was shiny and new, one of the most profound responses to it was horror, but not necessarily because it was viewed as an assault on Christianity or morality. It was not Anglican pearl-clutching as much as a common creeping fear that if humans could evolve, why couldn’t we devolve? If it was produced by natural selection, what holds our nature in place?
The Victorian obsession with morality was partially based in this fear of regression, manifested in works like “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” This fear has been a mainstay of horror and science fiction ever since.
The apotheosis of this existential nightmare may be the film “Annihilation.” Whereas werewolf, vampire, and zombie films all represent the fear of man’s animalistic part overcoming the rational, this film writes that terror across the very sky. It turns nature itself into the villain. This film is an opportunity to see what the natural world might be like if the principle of sufficient reason were false and God had abandoned us to Darwin and Nietzsche.
The Father of Monsters Emerges from the Shimmer
The setting is established quickly. A meteor crashes into a lighthouse somewhere in the continental United States and creates a “shimmer.” This is an ever-growing prism effect that changes the world around it at the genetic level.
Alligators start to take on shark-like characteristics. Plants start to look like humans. And none of the probes or expeditions sent into the shimmer come back, until one day a man named Kane returns after being lost in “Area X” for a year.
Kane is powerfully and subtly portrayed by the charismatic Oscar Isaacs, who played the Elon “Musky” villain in Alex Garland’s excellent debut film “Ex Machina.” He is featured far less in this film, but as a great actor he does a lot with very little.
A note on the name “Kane,” or Cain. Ever since “Beowulf,” Cain has been the father of monsters. In the Bible he is the first murderer. But in “Beowulf” the line of Cain literally (or possibly figuratively) comes to produce monsters, most notably Grendel and his mother.
So almost every time a character named Cain or Kane appears in a sci-fi or horror story, you know something will almost certainly be off about that individual. Some evil will emanate from them. One of the greatest examples of this is Officer Kane in the original “Alien.” He is the one the alien gestated within and eventually erupted from in dramatic anti-birth. Science Officer Ash actually calls the alien Kane’s son. Without spoiling specifics, the thematic meaning of this name continues in “Annihilation” but in a more complex manner.
The Woman’s Version of ‘Apocalypse Now’
This film is quite a step up for Garland, since “Ex Machina” was essentially a feature-length episode of “Black Mirror.” Moving from a relatively small film to heavy special effects and complicated on-location shooting is no small feat. But Garland was clearly up for the challenge.
He has built upon the firm foundation of “Ex Machina’s” sci-fi storytelling to produce a truly epic tale that goes beyond questioning the nature of humanity via artificial intelligence to the very nature of reality and identity. This film has more in common with “Apocalypse Now” than with typical horror or sci-fi fare, both cosmetically and thematically.
But whereas “Apocalypse Now” sees a man face the darkest, inverted aspects of manliness deep within Asian jungles, “Annihilation” brings a woman face to face with the antithesis of womanliness: anti-birth and violent natural regression. The “shimmer” has changed the rules of nature. Its ever-growing sphere of influence is “reclaiming” the earth from civilization.
DNA that shouldn’t be able to join become intertwined. A vine of flowers contains hundreds of species when it should only contain one. Some plants are starting to look like people and human corpses look as if they are becoming plants. Because of all this, the film feels like the lady version of “Apocalypse Now.”
The cast is almost entirely female, and they trek into a violent, swampy forest superficially similar to Francis Ford Coppola’s antiwar masterpiece. But it’s the aspect of women facing chaotic life that really makes the similarities powerful.
Women Face the Threat of Their Inversion
Women represent nurturing, life-giving order. It is from women that all human life originates. Traditionally, it was seen as the man’s primary role to ensure and aid this beautiful process by providing for women and children. In return, men were respected and honored, especially when sacrificing their own lives and happiness.
But here manliness is absent precisely where we would usually expect to see it. That’s what makes manly villains like Colonel Kurtz so horrifying. He has the ability to protect and serve others, but instead uses his brilliance for violence. Kurtz and his cinematic disciples are inversions of what they are supposed to be. Likewise, in “Annihilation” nature is doing the opposite of what it is supposed to do. That is why women must face this threat of devolution, not men.
The prodigal soldier Kane is married to the main character Lena, portrayed by Natalie Portman. His return after a year inside the shimmer is what draws Lena into this dark quest. He returns out of nowhere, sickly and disoriented. Lena is a biologist, one who literally studies life. She believes that if she investigates the shimmer she can find a way to help her husband recover.
So she joins the next team, comprised entirely of women, to try to save her husband. In other words, a source of life who studies life professionally goes to confront a chaotic devolution of life. Thematically, this is a much subtler version of Ellen Ripley going to confront the alien queen to save her adoptive daughter Newt in “Alien.” It’s like watching two mothers face off.
What Women Do When Men Fail
The cultural significance of this aspect of the story should not be lost on anyone. Our age is one of absent fathers and infantilized husbands. The filmmakers probably did not intend to comment on this complex societal problem, but the feeling is inescapable that without strong sacrificial male leadership women are forced into a nihilistic wilderness.
That’s not to say they aren’t up to the task, but traditionally men would say women shouldn’t have to be. Men and women working in concert bear different kinds of burdens in different way. This film is rich with these sorts of symbolic and philosophical layers, making it highly re-watchable.
The performances are all excellent, except for Jennifer Jason Leigh, who still hasn’t found a character she can’t dehumanize. The longevity of her career remains a total mystery. But Portman is still one of the strongest leading ladies of her generation. The weight of this film never overpowers her.
Tessa Thompson is a rising star, here proving she can be successful in pretty much any type of film. But the real standout is Gina Rodriguez. All the roles feel like they exist to support the main story, of Portman’s Lena, but Rodriguez’s Anya steals many a scene throughout.
Anya is constantly pushing back, but it never seems whiny or even the rebel cliché. She is genuine and fearful. Each step into the shimmer brings new terrors, and Anya seems like the only one responding with authentic fragile humanity. Everyone else is holding it together with military training or scientific coldness. I look forward to seeing Rodriguez’s further growth as an actress.
This Film Improves on the Book
The film bears very little semblance to the book. But as most good adaptations do, the film has captured much of what the book feels like while making numerous changes to the plot and characters. Thankfully it also significantly improves the source material. To put it mildly, the book is overrated and a bit incoherent.
Yes, the subject matter is intentionally obtuse, as it has to do with bizarre genetic occurrences. But the film engages the viewer emotionally in a way that the book almost seems intentionally to work against. It is highly cerebral, while the film is far more visceral. The shared subject matter is complex and meaningful, but I think the film does a much better job of actually engaging us as humans.
The book is suspenseful but not very troubling. The film, on the other hand, is easily one of the most unsettling films I have ever experienced. I think fans of the book will find the adaptation worthy and interesting, and it is the superior product.
As a horror and sci-fi fan, I found this film compelling and original. It’s paced deliberately, which is a dog whistle for slow. So if you find this genre generally uninteresting, the film probably isn’t for you. But if you enjoy challenging, thought-provoking cinema, then this is right up your alley, especially for those wanting to see novelty from the genre. I give it a 9/10.