What would an actual alien invasion of Earth look like? Would there be humanoid life forms? Spaceships? Or would it look completely different?
We’ve all seen our share of typical alien invasion movies that employ most of the same plot devices: the spaceships arriving, the struggle to communicate, the fight against more advanced technology, and perhaps the most lazy, the somewhat humanoid nature of the alien life forms themselves. No matter how creative we get with alien science fiction, the aliens themselves always seem to answer to the rules we know about sentient life-forms. So I’ll give VanDerMeer credit in this: Annihilation is probably one of the more thought provoking alien invasion stories I’ve ever encountered.
Oh, and of course the trope that is the mainstay of most any alien encounter movie: the inevitable victory of the human spirit over the invaders.
So after what writing a rather negative review of the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanDerMeer, I still plunked down my $15 bucks and went to see Annihilation.
First, let me back up a bit to the books: A co-worker and I read these books around the same time, and upon discussion, we agreed that not only was Annihilation the best book of the Trilogy, but that the other two books seemed tacked on and added nothing to the story—except more unanswered questions. You can read my review of the entire Trilogy HERE if you are so inclined.
I was admittedly curious about the film Annihilation because it was only based upon the first book—and loosely based upon that book—which explored some intriguing ideas. The film took all of the critical elements from Annihilation, a few of the best points of the second and third books, rearranged them into a coherent and logical order, and presented them in a defined story arc. The imagery is beautifully shot and will stay with the viewer long after the lights have come up. Hurry and see it on the big screen before it goes to Netflix.
OMG, SO MANY SPOILERS AHEAD!
Annihilation begins with a interstellar event: A “meteor” hits Earth near a lighthouse on the southeastern coast of the United States and immediately the area around it begins to “shimmer.” The “Shimmer,” as it’s called in the film, looks like a giant soap bubble and begins to rapidly advance over several years around an expanding “Area X.” A government installation, called The Southern Reach, is established outside of its perimeter to study the phenomenon. Our first encounter with the Southern Reach is with the hazmat-suited Lomax questioning a disoriented and uncooperative Lena (Natalie Portman) after her return from the latest expedition into Area X. After years of sending in teams of military and scientific personnel, only two people have ever made it back out of Area X: Lena and her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) who returned from the mission immediately preceding Lena’s. Lena and Kane are both military, though she has given up her military career for one in cellular biology. We are told at the outset that the remaining members of both Lena’s and Kane’s teams are dead.
Kane returns home after a year-long absence in which Lena has had no idea where he was and has just about given him up for dead. It is immediately obvious that something is seriously and horrifyingly wrong with Kane, and we soon see them racing in an ambulance towards the nearest hospital, only to be intercepted by the goons of the Southern Reach. Kane is instead taken to the Southern Reach installation where he is put on life support and quarantined.
Following Kane’s admission and Lena’s discovery that Kane has been in Area X for the entire year he’s been gone, Lena meets with Southern Reach psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) where they discuss Lena’s desire to enter Area X herself. There is an underlying motivation for Lena which is slowly revealed in the story of Lena and Kane’s relationship. Their story is told in flashback segments throughout the film and it is both poignant and utterly believable (not the usual Hollywood schlocky shorthand of montages). In fact, each member of the team is “damaged” in some way and they all have their reasons for volunteering for what is essentially a suicide mission.
Lena, and the rest of her team consisting of Dr. Ventress, Anya Thorenson (Gina Rodriguez), Cass Shepard (Tova Nuvotny) and Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), cross the Shimmer into Area X, with Lena deciding to keep the disposition of her husband, and his relationship with Area X a secret; Dr. Ventress is the only team member who knows about Kane’s relationship to Lena. The next time we see the team, they all seem to be awakening from some kind of stupor. Several days’ rations are missing, yet none of them has any memory of anything after crossing the Shimmer. Their objective is to get to the Lighthouse, which is the point of origin for the Area X/Shimmer phenomenon. As they get closer to the lighthouse, the mutations of the surrounding life-forms increase, all of which seem to have a repetitive and/or spiral pattern in common. The group encounters both beautifully and horrifically mutated plants and animals through their trek.
The team arrives at the original Southern Reach installation, which has been overtaken by Area X. They discover evidence of Kane’s expedition (which was the expedition immediately prior to their own). The prior group has left behind video evidence of mutations suffered by one of their group with Lena’s husband in a starring role. They later encounter the remains of the subject of that mutation in one of the more horrific images of the film. By the time the first member of the team is lost to a “bear” attack, the group is becoming unglued as they are starting to realize that they themselves are mutating: Area X is now “in” each of them. Cass’s death, the encroaching mutations, and the discovery that both Lena and Dr. Ventress were aware of Kane’s participation in the last expedition and they kept it to themselves, leads to a surprisingly tense and horrifying hostage situation that ultimately results in another death.
As the mutations progress and the team realizes the time left on their own sentience is running out, Ventress decides to push on to the lighthouse on her own, while Josie chooses acceptance in a scene that neatly sums up the entire point of the third book in VanDerMeer’s trilogy of the same name. But before she surrenders, Josie reveals that she has figured out what the Shimmer is: it’s a prism, refracting and duplicating not only light, but DNA.
Alone, Lena heads for answers at the lighthouse, several hours (Days…? Weeks…? Minutes…? Time has no meaning in Area X) behind Ventress. When Lena gets to the lighthouse, she discovers a tunnel, a burned body, and another video recorder pointed at the dead body. When played back, the video reveals not only the manner of the man’s death, but that the identity of the burned body is that of Kane. When an exact duplicate of Kane then enters the frame to turn off the camera, Lena’s horror is complete. Resigned and needing answers, she turns to enter the tunnel, where she finds Dr. Ventress basically accepting her transformation into Area X as well. Lena is then probed by a luminescence which eventually transforms into a humanoid, mirroring first all of Lena’s movements and eventually, her appearance. Lena battles the humanoid, sets fire to the lighthouse with a remaining flash bomb, which has the effect of burning down all of Area X. Then she returns to the Southern Reach.
Or at least that’s the story “Lena” tells the Southern Reach. Except Lena, like Kane, never made it out of Area X. Close observers will note throughout the movie that in the segments where Lena is being questioned by Lomax, she sports a figure 8 tattoo that originally belonged to Anya, which is the first clue that this Lena isn’t the same Lena who went into Area X. What I absolutely love about this is that the filmmakers specifically do not draw the viewers’ attention to this with a banal “LOOK HERE! THIS IS IMPORTANT!” shot of the tattoo. Instead, this is just one instance of many where they give their audience credit for intelligence. If nothing else, that alone is a great reason to recommend this film.
Upon Lena’s return, Kane is “miraculously” cured and when they embrace with knowing looks in their eyes, we understand that this alien intelligence now has the means to complete whatever its mission was to begin with.
This film is certainly not for everyone and I understand people either love it or hate it. My sister hated it. When I left the theater, I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about it, either, even though I certainly enjoyed the movie and was never bored. And it was absolutely gorgeous to look at. It was the fact that it stayed with me and made me think about it that gives me reason to recommend it.
In the end, I really liked this film where I didn’t much care for the books. But perhaps that’s because there was so much unnecessary baggage in the books (precisely two books’ worth.) In the books, we are led to believe that Area X is some kind of a wormhole link to another planet and that eventually it Area X is going to expand so much it’s going to take over the Earth. The Shimmer is instead called The Border, and its existence is unrelated to Area X; the book speaks often of the “border coming down” as a wholly separate event from genesis of Area X. There is a much more sinister and run down feeling to the Southern Reach organization which is highlighted by the author’s obsession with hypnosis, none of which, thankfully, makes it into this movie. For me, it defied plausibility that an inexplicable event such as Area X would, in real life, command such scant resources, funding and brainpower, as portrayed in the books. The original Lena, who is identified only as “The Biologist” in the books, is cold and mechanical and meets a much more horrific ending in Acceptance. Kane also perishes in immediately Annihilation, so readers do not benefit from the beautiful symmetry that the film accomplishes with his reuniting with Lena at the end. The second book, Authority, seemed rather pointless with an unlikable and incompetent protagonist (confusingly named “Control”) whose mission was focused only on unlocking the mystery of the Lena duplicate, who is much less interesting without her Kane counterpart. The third book, Acceptance, seems to imply that Area X was originated through some half-baked experiments of a quasi-governmental organization called, implausibly, the “Science and Séance Group.” This whole storyline throws the reader into a complete tailspin: are we dealing with aliens or ghosts here? Acceptance does address the ideas of refraction and duplication, which the movie wisely incorporates in a much more effective way. I already mentioned that the entire point of the final book was covered in the last scene with Josie.
An Alien Intelligence creates a prism to alter DNA (The Shimmer) and then creates a self-contained laboratory (Area X) where that intelligence can experiment with different genetic combinations in Earth’s diverse biosphere. In that controlled environment, that intelligence alters Earth’s life-forms via trial and error until it finally arrives at the correct combination in the form of Lena and Kane, now able to exit the controlled area and fulfill the mission. Whether that mission is one of conquest, colonization, or benign exploration, Annihilation doesn’t bother to say. But Annihilation is nothing if not pure science fiction that literally creates something new. It’s an alien invasion story that doesn’t involve spaceships, humanoid beings with interesting forehead prosthetics, or tangible antagonists. And it’s a story in which Humankind and its spirit are ultimately crushed.
Not your typical science fiction.