“Annihilation” is a science fiction film that was released in 2018. It’s about a mysterious phenomenon referred to as the ‘shimmer’, and an expedition comprised of five scientists that enter it to investigate. They are the latest in a long line of teams that have been sent in and not returned. There has been one survivor only, the husband of the main character Lena (Natalie Portman), and he is very ill.

This is a weird one, and I am not sure how to interpret it. it does start with a very intriguing scene. Portman is sitting in a quarantine area, confronted by a man in a hazmat suit. He asks her a series of questions that draw in the viewer to the questions they raise.  What did you eat? (She doesn’t remember eating.) Where are your colleagues? (She confirms two dead, two unknown.) So many questions. I thought it was a great start to the film.

The five scientists, all women, are led by Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh.) She and Portman are both excellent in their respective roles. Ventress has a curiously clinical, detached air throughout. The others believe her to be cold and heartless, and only later do we discover that she has terminal cancer and has no expectation of surviving the expedition. I couldn’t help but feel that there was an element of survivor’s guilt working in her. She comments on having picked the members of all the expeditions. Maybe she felt that as she was dying anyway she may as well die in the place of a healthy person? She is an interesting character and Leigh is excellent in the role.

Portman, as Lena, is less of a nice person than one might expect from the main character in a film such as this. She is a biologist who is a former soldier. While her military experience is useful during the mission, it also alienates her in some respects from her non-military colleagues. When she leaves the others to search for Ventriss, one of the others asks to accompany her and Lena refuses. Her colleague feels hurt at the rejection, though Lena has made a sensible decision from a military point of view. We discover through Lena’s memories that she cheated on her husband with a work colleague, and her decision to end it with him is made with the same military calculation. This mindset does not leave a lot of room for tact and sympathy. Lena doesn’t invite sympathy because she doesn’t give it. She is as cold as Ventress in her own way.

The depiction of the interior of the Shimmer is beautifully filmed. The vibrant colours of the plant mutations have a level of unreality about them, as if the characters have entered some kind of imaginary world. This contrasts heavily with the less attractive mutations they soon observe from the animals and, after they find the footage from the previous team, the people. The beautiful, Eden-like scenery is an ironic backdrop to the more horrifying parts of the story. The footage of Lena’s husband Kane cutting open one of his team member’s stomach (apparently with the consent of the afflicted man and everyone else), in order to film something living inside him, is terrifying. One of Lena’s colleagues states the men went mad and the life form they saw on the film was just an illusion. However this is the same man whose body they find torn apart, so her assertions are obviously wishful thinking. The mutated bear, with Shepherd’s screams coming out of its mouth, is probably the most horrific moment in the film. All this takes place in a house where plants shaped like people grow beautifully in the yard. When we last see Radek (Tessa Thompson) before she disappears, there appear to be plant-like stems and leaves coming from her arms. This leaves us wondering whether the people-shaped plants are actually plant-shaped people, an unsettling thought.

While ultimately the film leaves us with many questions, the climax does seem to indicate there is a guiding intelligence at work, and it’s not simply a natural, if otherworldly, effect. What this intelligence’s intentions are, however, remain a mystery. The Shimmer’s effects seem to tie in with Lena’s own research, that all life is made up essentially of the same type of cell. So, theoretically, can a life-form be disassembled and remade in different combinations, like a jigsaw with multiple solutions? Could the Shimmer be a form of terraforming? The being Lena confronts mirrors her movements. Is it learning, trying to adapt? I don’t think the unanswered questions detract from the film in this case. They instead leave the viewer with a lot to wonder about and mull over. The closing scene and the atonal synthetic music leave a sinister vibe.

I liked “Annihilation”. It’s not an easy film, but excellent viewing if you enjoy being left with food for thought.

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