Annihilation, the latest offering from director Alex Garland (Ex Machina), is one weird movie.
Loosely based on the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation centers on a biologist named Lena, who comprises one-fifth of an all-woman research team tasked with what amounts to a suicide mission: exploring a place called Area X, or the Shimmer. Once a sleepy, nondescript stretch of coastland, Area X became Area X years ago when an extraterrestrial… something crashed to earth and began aggressively remaking its immediate surroundings. Since then, DNA in Area X has behaved strangely. Species, once discrete from one another, have begun to change. Mutate. Hybridize. Animals, plants, and people blur to the point of indistinction. And as the research team plunges further into Area X’s interior, horrified by the telltale signs of their own changing bodies, they find themselves confronted with an ecological bizarro world—an unsettling cross between a verdant, reconstituted Eden on the one hand and straight-up nightmare fuel on the other.
It’s a solid movie, on the balance. Not as satisfying as the novel it’s based on (because of course not) and with an ending that, in my professional opinion, blows chunks. Still, if it fails to stick the landing, the high-wire act leading up to the faceplant is pretty bonkers. In fact, I’ve found myself fascinated by the ways in which Annihilation tries to rein its own creative zaniness—to package or frame its weirdness so as to be palatable for American box offices.
One strategy of restraint has to do with the way that Annihilation navigates its panoply of weird imagery. In general, Annihilation really leans into Area X as a sort of spectacle. In other words, it frames Area X as, above all, a thing to be looked at. Straddling the line between beautiful and unsettling, the movie pitches one striking image after another for its audience to ogle at. Vivid splashes of mutated plant-life, for instance, line the undergrowth of pristine forests. Likewise, in more urban environments, budding tangles of vines that look eerily like people haunt playgrounds and streets, while on the beach, impossible, glass-like trees, sharp as lances and rigid as exclamation marks, punctuate the sand. Even the grotesque is visually arresting in this movie. In one of the film’s more iconic shots, the research team stumbles across a skeleton smeared across the deep end of an empty swimming pool, its torso ripped away at the hips to make space for the blossoming of some appalling fungus.
This tendency toward spectacle is of a piece, I’d argue, with the film’s flirtation with the tropes good old monster movies. Although it stops short of a full-on Alien-scenario, Area X has enough killer animals with bad attitudes and a lamentable fondness for jump scares, to make a serious head-fake in Ridley Scott’s direction. Shark-toothed alligators lurk beneath the waters of abandoned boathouses, and outside fragile chain-link fences, mutant bears stalk the night. Small wonder, then, that the rat-tat-tat of assault rifles often serves as the primary negotiator between the research team and Area X. If spectacle positions Area X as something to be looked at, its monsters make it something to be shot at.
It’s the distance suggested by both of these phrases, looked at and shot at, that fascinates me in this movie. After all, both phrases suggest a kind of separation from—even a position of power over—the weirdness of Area X. Area X is looked at. Its wildlife is shot at. There’s an oppositional logic to this apparent state of affairs that’s simple, clear-cut, and reassuring. It eschews complications and mutual entanglements. As an aesthetic, the distance of looking and shooting at invites the audience to experience a familiar sense of control.
Look at that fungus, which isn’t me. Look at that bear, which isn’t me.
Except that, in Area X, these tidy little oppositions don’t hold much water, in the end. Spectator or shooter—everyone and everything, finally, gets folded back into Area X, and turned into something else. Indeed, as far as the bear goes, Annihilation has a disturbingly literal answer: thanks to a freak of Area X genetics, that bear is indeed me. Or, rather, it’s a character I once identified with, which really isn’t all that different.
It’s not clear to me whether the tension here, between Annihilation’s manifest weirdness and its strategies for domesticating that weirdness, serves the film’s interests or not. It’s possible that spectacle and monsters actually works against the themes of ecological enmeshment that the plot revolves around. At the same time, however, this aesthetic does put viewers in an uncomfortable position. After all, we’re used to the fantasy of control. We’re used to standing apart from the places we occupy, fillers and subduers of the earth that we are. By giving us a taste of that fantasy but refusing to satisfy it, Annihilation encourages us to acknowledge our indebtedness to the environments we inhabit—and to grapple with the fact that the non-human, like Area X itself, inevitably shoves back.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.