Last week Netflix released Alex Garland’s latest film, Annihilation, a much anticipated (by me, at least) adaptation of the Jeff VanderMeer book by the same name. Garland has created a sophisticated, cinematic science fiction story that exemplifies everything a really good sci fi should do. It explores contemporary ideas, drawing on big philosophical concepts, while questioning your assumptions of the world and presenting a possible new reality. Annihilation does all of this, and it looks fantastic too with some great special effects and excellent performances. The film draws from the book, while evolving into something new at the same time.

Still from the film AnnihilationBiologist Lena (Natalie Portman), signs up for a mission into a zone called Area X surrounded by a mysterious shimmer. It seems like a suicide mission. No-one who has gone into this zone has come out, but she wants to find out what happened to her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). The mission is lead by Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and includes a team of specialists (Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny and a stand-out turn by Gina Rodriguez).  The team goes in, and things become weird pretty much straight away.  This film is creepy, uncanny, mysterious and clever, but to say anything more would give too much away.

If you enjoy Sci Fi, or films that don’t necessarily spell everything out, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy this one. If you want a more in-depth discussion, read on, but you’ll probably want to watch the movie first, there are spoilers.

Going deeper, with spoilers

Science Fiction is one of my favourite genres, and it covers a lot of ground, with many sub-genres and hybrids. One of the things that makes sci fi interesting to me is that it explores big philosophical questions, usually connected to the historical moment and whatever is happening in the zeitgeist at the time. In our current era, there are probably two big themes that come around again and again, and these are both evident in Annihilation: the threat of climate change; and the question of what it means to be human, or sentient, or alive. The second of these has long been a favoured topic in sci fi, and in recent years has evolved in interesting ways as people speak to Siri or Alexa, and wonder what it will really mean once machines become truly sentient, which surely is any moment now. Alex Garland’s first feature film, Ex Machina, dealt with this extremely well.  Annihilation touches on the idea of a sentient being that isn’t human, not machines, but beings, perhaps hybrids. There is also the theme of a radically transformed, sometimes terrifying, nature. But at its core, this film is about change. The fear of change, and the inevitability of it. That nothing ever remains the same. That even by seeking stasis, you are inevitably and irrevocably transformed. The film explores both the horror and the beauty of this idea.

The whole film is framed by the idea of mitosis – cells dividing, destroying the original cell to create something new. We come back to this again and again. To create, it is necessarily to destroy what was there before, to annihilate, and this is the essence of the film. Like the process of mitosis, this destruction is without judgement, it just is. It simply exists in nature. Nothing stays the same, it is always in a state of becoming. And within the shimmer, what it is becoming is something new and unexpected. The prism of the shimmer, refracting everything that comes within its reach, fundamentally changing the world. It creates fearful, hybrid, uncanny creatures who scream words with a human voice as they attack, and also beautiful colourful vines with flowers of many species, fauns with flowering antlers, and flowering bushes shaped like humans. Or, as we find out, they are possibly humans shaped like bushes. Nature doesn’t discriminate, doesn’t consider humans on a hierarchy like we humans usually do. We are just cells, just DNA. But this isn’t the science of DNA as we know it. In the shimmer, a bear with a horrific mutated skull-face, can also absorb and then reproduce the screams of someone it has killed. (This isn’t in the book, but Garland may have taken this particular idea from another, excellent, Jeff Vandemeer book, Borne). It may not make sense in our understanding of how DNA works, but it certainly delivers on the uncanny creepiness factor, and is a chilling moment.

Garland introduces each section with a new, simple title, marking each stage as we move deeper and deeper into the story. Lighting, framing, and soundtrack define the different parts of this world and this story. The bluish green light and fishbowl feel of the Southern Reach, Lena isolated by glass, reflections of people, faces masked watching her interrogation. The warm lighting and empty, but lived-in rooms of Lena’s house, and the soundtrack of Cosby Stills and Nash, photographs everywhere of the life that was once lived there. This house may be empty now, but it is full of memories.  As the group enters the shimmer, the refracted light imbues everything with a pretty but strange rainbow glow. As we move deeper in, saturated colours are everywhere, until Lena arrives at the lighthouse, which is all white except for the black cave below. The black of the cave has the same swirling iridescence as the shimmer itself, like an oil slick. Within the lighthouse, the strange spaces, beautiful visual effects, the design of the underground cave combined with Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s extraordinary soundtrack, take this sequence into a very different realm. We are now in the heart of the transformed alien world.

Lena spends a lot of time alone on screen, most notably when she’s in the headquarters of the Southern Reach. She is alone at home, even when she’s in bed with her lover she doesn’t share the screen with him. This is in stark contrast to the flashback of Lena and Kane in bed together before he leaves for his mysterious mission. They’re talking about their coming separation, but throughout the scene they are physically connected, and joking together in the intimate way couples do. Bathed in warm, golden light, it’s a lovely scene. It is tightly written and well constructed, telling us all we need to know about Kane and Lena before this story began.

Tessa Thompson in AnnihilationWithin the shimmer, the human word has been consumed, taken over by this new nature. Buildings are covered in plants, a small shack filled with evidence of the former human inhabitants , now being consumed by a lake and inhabited by a crocodile-shark hybrid. This is a world where nature is at once beautiful, and also unpredictable and deadly.  Like nature, or like a cell dividing, the alien life has no desire to destroy for the sake of it. There’s no malignant will. As Lena says at the end, the life form didn’t want anything, it was just mirroring her. Yet, we know, destruction is the by-product. The purpose of the Southern Reach is to try to find a way to tame this space once more, reclaim it for humanity before it creeps wider to consume more human spaces, perhaps everything. This is not an exact metaphor for the spectre of climate change, but it’s hard to argue the concept doesn’t reflect the fear many feel with nature mutating in unexpected, unpredictable and dangerous ways. The ongoing desire to control the environment, dominate it rather than be subject to its dangerous extremes.

Lena manages to destroy the lighthouse, which seems to succeed in also destroying the shimmer. It was surprisingly easy, as it turns out. But she is changed, and so is Kane. They may be alien, they may be hybrids, mutants, we don’t know. The only thing we are sure of is they are not what they were when they went in. The shimmer changed them, as it did everything. But as Cass says when they are rowing down the river, she is already in mourning for the person she once was before she lost her daughter. They have all lost something, had changed already before they entered the shimmer. The shimmer merely completed the transformation. Josie says to Lena, just before she changes and disappears, Ventress wants to face it (whatever ‘it’ is, the alien life form, the force centred at the lighthouse, the shimmer), and Lena wants to fight it, while Josie wants neither of those things. Ventress does face it, the alien and her inevitable demise. In doing so, she is annihilated, until nothing recognisable is left. Josie wants something different. She want to accept the transformation, become part of it, and so does, disappearing into the landscape. Lena wants to fight the shimmer, and she does, destroying it. And while she is the only one left at the end, she hasn’t really survived the experience either. She too is changed. They all face their deepest fears in different ways, and yet none really survive intact. And isn’t this the heart of the story? That change is inevitable. It is happening, even when we are not aware of it. You can accept it, you can fight it, but it doesn’t change the fact that we, and everything in the world, are always in the process of becoming something else, on a metaphysical level and also on a basic cellular level.

The book reminded me a lot more of Andrei Tarkovsky’s legendary film Stalker, but the movie certainly also has themes in common. In Stalker the group ventures into the heart of a mysterious, possibly alien, landscape. Like the group in Annihilation, they are trying to find answers, and have their deepest desires realised. Lena wants to find out what happened to Kane, to perhaps save him. Ventress, Cass, Josie and Anya all are trying to save themselves in different ways. And certainly Ventress and Josie find something of what they’re looking for, although not in the way they expected. Lena also finds what she was looking for. She saves Kane and is reconnected to him, but only because she has been transformed as he has. She finds Kane again, who is no longer Kane, by no longer being Lena.

This is a smart, layered, science fiction, in good hands with Alex Garland, who has proven himself once again as a masterful storyteller. It’s only a shame there wasn’t a big screen release outside of the US. While I’m grateful Netflix picked this up and made it widely available, this film was made for a big screen and it would have been an extraordinary experience to see the spectacular landscapes and special effects in the immersive way it was intended.