To what extent can the beauty of a film compensate for foundational weakness and unanswered questions? Director Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” makes a fair case with its gorgeous visuals and convincing CGI, but even these cannot make up for its lack of story development. We find ourselves questioning the motivations behind key events more often than Garland immerses us within his fantastically frightening world, in which a meteor strike in Florida generates an expanding zone dubbed The Shimmer that genetically mutates all life forms within it. All expeditions sent to reach the heart of the alien territory has disappeared until Kane (Oscar Isaac), the husband of protagonist Lena (Natalie Portman), returns barely alive and very much not himself. Out of love—and perhaps something more—Lena enters The Shimmer.
As “Annihilation” flashes back and forth between scenes from Lena’s marriage, her experience within The Shimmer, and the government interrogation after her escape, we are somehow expected to believe that Lena gains an understanding of the science behind the mutations taking place inside. “It’s not destroying. It’s creating something new,” says Lena in her government interrogation after she escapes from the alien zone. Though Lena seems to understand something fundamental about the mysterious extraterrestrial virus brought to Earth by a meteor strike, Garland never explains fully what exactly she understands. Therefore, we by default struggle to grasp what The Shimmer is as well.
The purpose of this alien world is also never fully explained. This is not the alien invasion in “Independence Day,” in which hostile beings attempt to enslave mankind, nor is it the extraterrestrial contact in “Arrival,” meant to gift humans an advanced language. We can state a number of reasons based on the sci-fi predecessors of “Annihilation,” but these past movies always establish the intentions of the foreigners by the end of the movie. That’s not the case in “Annihilation.” Yes, Garland illustrates in a cinematically beautiful way that the alien force is mixing the DNA of all life forms and refracting naturally occurring waves, but the alien’s motivations behind this are a mystery, due to the fact that Garland never elucidates what it hopes to take from or bring to Earth.
Unfortunately, this issue has side-effects that seep into other significant aspects of the film. “Annihilation” suffers throughout from a lack of consistency in how the extraterrestrial expanse treats the film’s characters. The five women (including Lena) who enter The Shimmer together share a common tendency of self-destruction: Anya (Gina Rodriguez) suffered from addiction and substance abuse, Josie (Tessa Thompson) had previously inflicted self-harm, and Lena had sabotaged her happy marriage by cheating, the reason her husband entered The Shimmer in the first place. Garland seems to establish The Shimmer as a vehicle for truth that affects the women in ways befitting their mental states. If The Shimmer really were to have this purpose within the film’s universe, it would certainly make sense and would impart some kind of purpose to the alien. However, a lack of consistency undermines the narrative and substantive purpose of The Shimmer, as each woman meets a principally different end: The Shimmer subjects some to pitifully normal deaths but grants others increased agency. We are left wondering what The Shimmer’s laws are in treating those who enter it, which then leads to confusion as to what the characters represent within the film space. Some may be inherently more valuable than others, or perhaps there are certain qualities that this extraterrestrial deems worthier. Maybe The Shimmer knows imperceptible things about humans and all others, but this interpretation might be giving the aliens credit they don’t deserve.
Finally, Garland’s concluding scene tries to emulate the ending of “Arrival,” but has neither its nuance nor revelation. With ambiguous endings, it’s unclear whether the film has reached its limit for unclarified facts. Other aspects of “Annihilation” must be explicit enough for us to handle a conclusion that leaves us pondering, or the film runs the risk that one more drop of vagueness will tip us into frustration. “Annihilation” raises so many questions that it would benefit from the closure of a concrete ending. However, we are left not with fodder for thought but rather with doubts about the plot.
—Staff writer Tiffany A. Rekem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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