ANNIHILATION (2018, Alex Garland)
In Alejandro Amenábar’s 2001 ghost story THE OTHERS, Nicole Kidman’s character, having long waited for her soldier husband to return from war, finally sees him when she’d given up hope — but he isn’t the man he was when he left, and in that sequence Amenábar makes a quietly powerful comment on war: how it changes us, how its casualties are not just the deaths and injuries suffered in battle, but also the families it destroys in the process.
I thought of that during an early scene here, which has a similar narrative function, and while Garland isn’t necessarily making an anti-war statement (though I think that’s part of it), he’s definitely saying something about the tragic changes people make, and the inevitable loss of people we once knew. This theme is very nicely explored throughout the movie, cogent and clear. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mysteriously callous Dr. Ventress says that she thinks the person who started this mission won’t be the person who ends it. She says it’s in our nature to self-destruct; that we are driven by a biological impulse towards entropy, regardless of decisions we want to make. Portman’s protagonist Lena professes this to her students: that at a cellular level everything exists in order to live, to change, and to die. And in some remarkably un-sexy pillow talk with hubby Oscar Isaac, she says that aging — and genetic breakdown — is God’s mistake.
Given that all this is on Garland’s mind, it makes the sci-fi thriller aspects go down easier. Everything we see is really just a metaphor for this existential autopsy of the human condition and our inability to stop the progression of how much we change. We are always mutating, always dying. Relationships fail, careers stall, diseases kill, and addiction cripples. Why not explore this within the genre of an ARRIVAL-style descent into the unknown, with nods to 2001? One absolutely terrifying sequence serves the template well, offering up what I saw somewhere described as “pure nightmare fuel” (not hyperbole). And the balls-out climax at the Lighthouse may lack a bit in terms of effects wonder, but the creativity of vision and unique turn of events won me over. Finally, a small, quiet shot totally knocked me out: it’s just Portman setting down a glass of water, and what happens to the liquid and container, mirrored so many times earlier by cellular graphics, took my breath away. This is a giant leap forward for Garland from the annoyingly dumb EX MACHINA, and proof that he (and Paramount, who are on a bit of a courageous tear) is brave enough to trust his audience, refuse to cajole us, and go down with the ship if he must. My hat is off.