I watched Annihilation (2018), the film that Alex Garland made previously to his current film Men. The two have quite a bit in common stylistically. They both concern central female characters who seem to be dominated by their awareness of an absent male partner, despite having successful careers of their own.
In this story, we start with Lena held in a secure unit and interrogated by a team wearing protective gear. They are asking her about some mission she has returned from, and querying how she survived so long and what happened to the others she was with.
In the film, the present moment is her questioning back at the base after the mission. Flashbacks follow the exposition and are not breaks in Lena’s conciousness of her surroundings.
Lena is an oncologist and we see her giving a lecture on the emergence of cancerous cells to a class of students. She was also in the military at some point, and her Marine husband Kane is still employed in some kind of Special Forces missions that he cannot discuss. The time is the quite near future, since it is mentioned that he has been sent to Pakistan in the past. But he disappeared on his most recent mission, nearly a year ago, and Lena is now guilty about having an affair with a work colleague. As she is trying to finally make changes to the house they shared together (repainting a small room, possibly intended for a child they never had), Kane suddenly reappears in her presence.
This is a material and not hallucinatory presence, since the returned Kane has blood coming from his mouth and needs to be rushed away in an emergency ambulance… which is intercepted by special agents. Both Lena and Kane are taking away to a special unit, and soon moved near to the centre of action: close to “the Shimmer”, a mysterious swirling zone expanding away from a lighthouse, where some object crashed from out of space some time earlier.
We are never told exactly where in the world this has occurred, but the southern United States would be a plausible location. Lena is informed that all previous attempts to travel in to the Shimmer failed with no returnees, until her husband’s sudden reappearance. She is also told that is needed for the latest mission: 4 tough women with science backgrounds, including the psychologist who selected all the previous losers. They march into the zone and immediately seem to have a fugue state, as they wake up days later in their bivouacs in the middle of the forest and with no recollection of the previous part of the journey.
Visually the film is impressive, with many vistas of wild and mutated flora evoking obvious sources in Max Ernst’s works, whilst the eerily desolate buildings are fine examples of ruin porn. The scenes where the team are attacked by wild new hybrid predators also provide quick shocks, but putting a snarling beast in the picture removes the sense of slow-building invisible presence. The scenario has close affinities with Ballard stories like The Crystal World and The Voices Of Time, but opts for giving a quasi-scientific “explanation” for the phenomena, in terms of “DNA being refracted” by fields. Drawing attention to the premise that this team is also supposed to be a science field mission unfortunately underlines its absurdity. Here are a few obvious questions:
- If radio communication is known to fail, why not lay a landline cable as they advance slowly into the zone?
- Why go on foot, rather than in some sort of protected vehicle?
- Why try to reach the lighthouse in one move, why not establish a series of base camps?
- Why not send more people, with more equipment?
It’s also quite implausible that this event could have been kept concealed for very long, even if the cover story about a chemical contamination was used (that would attract a few environmentalists to see what was going on).
This story can’t work as a hard-scifi, but attempting to do so kills the strangeness.
The final arrival at the lighthouse leads to a confrontation with an alien being that turns out to be not especially aggressive and it seems Lena heroically saves the day without really trying. Back at the base it is suggested that the whole event might simply be a Roadside Picnic saga of accidental magical debris falling on humans from an unfathomably greater civilisation that was barely aware of us.
There is the obvious remaining question of whether her or Kane or possibly both might now be impostors and replicas created by the dying invader. But the bigger puzzle is how exactly Kane was projected back home in the first place. The alien absorbed Kane and created a simulacrum… and what did it do next? And why doesn’t it do more like that? Underneath the metaphysical transgressions, this film has a sentimental faith in The Power Of Love.
The Shimmer is the most interesting character, at its best when the others aren’t talking over it.