Much has been made of humanity’s “fight or flight” response to danger – the mechanism, borne of evolutionary necessity, that impels us to either take on an adversary in the hopes of besting them, or to run, as fast as we can, away from danger.
It works marvellously in most situations, and likely explains why we’re still around as a species, but as Alex Garland’s ferociously-intelligent new film Annihilation makes brilliantly clear, it may not always provide us with the right perspective on every situation.
Take The Shimmer, a strange phenomenon of extraterrestrial origin – although only the audience knows this courtesy of a quick wordless piece of visual exposition near the start of the film – which is slowly and unnervingly swallowing up great swathes of swampland on the US Gulf Coast.
Watched by a team of military personnel and scientists who have to keep moving their base known as Southern Reach as Area X expands remorselessly, with a mix of morbid curiosity and fear, The Shimmer looks in every way, shape or form like an enemy, the kind you would normally run from since fighting doesn’t seem to be much of an option.
But what kind of enemy, or is it an enemy at all?
No one knows for certain with every team that has entered, whether military or scientific, having been swallowed up and never seen again, leaving everyone perplexed about what it is, what it wants and what it’s doing.
The only person to have emerged back from the oil slick-like rainbow bubble, Kane (Oscar), a seargeant in the US military, seems to be a near-mute, emotionally-catatonic shadow of his former rambunctious self, perplexing everyone, particularly biologist wife Lena (Natalie Portman) who is mourning the supposed death of her husband when he mysteriously turns up at their home.
With no answers forthcoming, and desperate to know how the perplexing anomaly has changed her husband for the worse, both physically and emotionally, she volunteers to go on a scientific team into The Shimmer with aggressively taciturn psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), gung-ho paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), shy physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and surveyor and geologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny).
They’re unaware of Lena’s motivations for going in and she makes no move to inform them, preferring to keep things quiet and find the answers she needs, and hopefully return.
Split between flashback, the present inside The Shimmer and the future where you know Lena makes it back to Southern Reach, Annihilation is a cleverly-constructed film that never gives too much away while providing enough answers, so beautifully well-judged in fact, that you wish screenwriter Alex Garland had been responsible for taking care of the last few seasons of Lost.
Sinuous and sublimely terrifying in a way that creeps up on you rather than shocking you all at once, the film is an acid trip into the very depths of the human psyche, a weird as f**k journey into what happens when humanity finds itself confronted by a phenomenon that defies all the usual, easy fight-or-flight assumptions.
In that respect, it’s fascinating how Garland, who based his nuanced screenplay for Annihilation, on the book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, treats the reactions of each gender.
Almost without exception, men react in a physical, visceral sense, interpreting the way The Shimmer mutates and plays with them and all the DNA around them, whether planet, animal or otherwise, as a bricks-and-mortar enemy to be fought against, reacted to and subdued, and when it can’t be, yielded to.
The women on the other hand, and this is the viewpoint we are most fully exposed to thanks to the superlative all-female team that takes up the lion’s share of the narrative, interpret the eerie otherness of The Shimmer, which is both beautiful and horrifying and confounding un-human, in emotional ways, each of them coming up with a unique way of handling this weird environments endless stresses and strains.
It’s subtle, immensely well-articulated and insightful observation of the genders that goes a long way to informing Annihilation, a film which detaches everyone from who and what they know and forces them to deal with a whole new world that matches nothing they know, and which rebuffs every attempt they make to understand it.
Beyond this gender divide, Garland does a remarkably perceptive job in amongst all the visual oddities and scientific observation, of exploring what happens to people when they end up, for a variety of reasons disconnected from the rest of the human race.
In the case of the team of which Lena is a part, this is pretty much everyone with the biologist the only one with sufficient motivation and connection to the outside world to make it back out of The Shimmer.
That’s not to say that the other have a death wish, although Ventress seems to be working hard to conjure one up, but neither Anya, Josie or Cass seems as willing as Lena, driven to understand what it is they’re facing, if that’s even possible, to fight The Shimmer or to seek to understand it; flight seems to be the preferred response for the three woman other than Ventress or Lena although that is increasingly problematic.
The central question of Annihilation, which never takes anything at face value and possesses an engaging willingness to accept otherness even as many of its characters recoil from it to lesser or greater degrees, is whether The Shimmer is an enemy at all.
What we see as a destructive foe, a corrupter of the established order, may simply be a creator of a new kind of life, freakishly unnerving though it is at times (there is one scene where Lena discover flowering plants have copied the DNA which gives human beings they’re distinctive shape, a creepy capability which leaves a field looking a cemetery of floral-decked human shapes which are, of course, anything but.)
Of course for reasons which involve far too many spoilers, and so can’t be explored too fully in the context of this review, this could simply be a convenient excuse for the unknown entity to justify its own existence.
Whatever the truth, and Garland’s script assiduously avoid defining that, preferring suggestion and inference, although it does give us a healthy amount of answers as previously noted, Annihilation provides an utterly intriguing, mesmerisingly and pleasingly odd journey into a whole other realm of life as it intersects with humanity’s often limited ability to step outside of its preconceived notions and instinctual reactions.
Mysterious yet grounded in raw, deeply-felt humanity, thoughtful about dying and being reborn, and brutally honest about the self-destructive effects of being unmoored from the mainstays of life such as friends and family, Annihilation is a masterpiece, an impressively cerebral film that is always accessible and richly insightful, never once forgeting that we never really know who we are until we are close to losing everything that makes us human.