“I don’t know…”
This seemingly innocuous, non-committal sentence is one we hear so often we take it for granted. The sentence could denote lack of knowledge, the clouding of memory, a reflection on bigger concepts and ideas. Or it could simply be a lie. These words are spoken in the film by two different people in two different contexts, but this simple sentence might just hold the key to understanding Annihilation.
Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist and former U.S. Army soldier locked in a cell with thick glass walls, being watched by a team of people wearing protective masks and hazmat suits. Lena is being interrogated by one of these people about her mission to a place called “The Shimmer,” an area near a research facility where something has happened, something preventing any type of contact or communication. Through one of many flashbacks, we learn that Lena had joined a team on a fact-finding mission into the Shimmer. Why? Because her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) had died on a previous mission into the area and she wants answers.
Joining Lena on the all-female team are a physicist (Tessa Thompson), an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), and the team leader, a psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Only Ventress knows about Lena’s connection to Kane. (Will she keep it a secret?) As the women encounter both strangeness and danger, they’re confronted with deeper issues, things I won’t go into here. My friend Orangerful mentioned that the Annihilation’s pre-release trailers probably misrepresented the film. I didn’t see them, but I imagine they were too focused on either the horror or sf elements (or both). It’s hard to represent huge ideas and concepts in a trailer. People online are comparing the film to Alien, Predator, The Thing, and pretty much any other film that contains elements of science fiction and horror. Though not completely inaccurate, these also are misrepresentations.
Although Annihilation is not 2001: A Space Odyssey, the comparisons to that film contain some merit. Both are about excursions into the unknown, what you find there, and what that knowledge (or an attempt to deal with it) does to you. Like Kubrick’s film, Annihilation will give audiences much to talk about, not only plot details, but more importantly large concepts to wrap your head around, how those concepts speak to us and what they mean, both on small and large-scale levels. Perhaps the best way to help understand the film is to watch Garland’s previous film Ex Machina (2015), which covers some of same thematic material (although in a different way). Annihilation is a film to watch, talk about afterward, and watch again. And talk about again.
I know I’ve told you very little about the film, but for now, I’m going to leave it at that. I will say that if you read and enjoyed Jeff VanderMeer’s novel on which the film is based, you will find many changes. My advice is the same as it would be when watching any film: to judge it on its own merits. Enjoy. And when you’ve seen it, let’s talk.