Plot Summary (contains spoilers)
It’s been nearly a year since Lena, a Johns Hopkins biologist and ex-army soldier, has seen her husband, Kane, who disappeared on a top-secret military mission. She has a hard time coping with his loss. One day, Kane shows up unexpectedly at the house while Lena is painting the living room. He looks weak and disoriented, and soon collapses without saying much about where he’s been or what he’s done.
Lena and her comatose husband are brought to Area X, a government facility in charge of investigating a new phenomenon called The Shimmer. The Shimmer is a mysterious electromagnetic field that appeared three years ago in the area and has been expanding steadily ever since, threatening to engulf the Earth. No one quite understands what it is or how it works. Everyone’s who’s gone into the Shimmer has never came back, except Lena’s husband, Kane.
Dr. Ventress, a psychologist of Area X decides to recruit a new team to venture into the Shimmer, hoping to reach the lighthouse where The Shimmer originated from. This new team includes, Lena the biologist, a physicist, an anthropologist, and a paramedic. A 5 person team ventures towards The Shimmer.
The team wakes up inside the Shimmer and discover that they’ve been there for 6 days with no memory of what happened. All their navigational and communication devices do no work inside the Shimmer. They decide to proceed as best as they can to the lighthouse.
The inside of the Shimmer is covered with ‘mutated’ plants and animals, species that seem intermixed with each other at the cellular level. Some of these animals attack the team, forcing them to defend themselves. In an abandoned warehouse the team finds a memory card with a video of the previous mission that went into the Shimmer. The video shows Kane, Lena’s husband, cutting open another soldier to reveal that something’s moving inside him. Lena begins to think that the mutation also affects the humans that enter – not only the native plants and animals. Their cells are slowly changing, mutating, and this means their mind will also be affected.
Lena is alone when she makes it to the lighthouse. One by one, all her teammates have died or disappeared due to the strange effects of the Shimmer. There she finds another camera, this one showing Kane, her husband. In the footage Kane pronounces that he no longer recognizes who he is, likely due to the change in his brain cells scrambling his sense of identity, and commits suicide with grenade. At the end of the video, it is revealed that a doppelganger of Kane has been shooting the video, likely the same doppelganger that returned home.
Lena decides to step into a hole that is inside the lighthouse, going down a strange network of cavern with tree root-like patterns along the walls. There she finds Dr. Ventress, seemingly taken over by the Shimmer. In a trance, Ventress reveals that the Shimmer is caused by an alien, whose plan is to disintegrate everything to its basic components, thus causing total annihilation. Then Dr. Ventress disintegrates. The creature that emerges absorbs a drop of blood from Lena, and transforms into a humanoid life form. Lena, terrified, attempts to run away thinking that the alien will harm her, but soon realizes that it is simply mirroring her actions. As the alien begins to look like Lena, take on her clothes and appearance, she throws a flash grenade at it and makes her escape. The alien, along with the whole lighthouse burn down, and The Shimmer disappears.
Back at Area X, Lena recounts the whole story to a government operative and then reunites with Kane, who’s health miraculously improved the moment the Shimmer vanished. When Lena asks him if he really is Kane, he admits he doesn’t really know.
The movie ends with the two embracing, and a close-up on their faces reveals their eyes shimmering.
There’s a really short version of this review that I could sum up in one sentence: Annihilation is a mess of a movie, the same mess as the mutated world it portrays – a beautiful, intelligent, and thought-provoking mess – but a mess nonetheless.
I suppose I have to say a few more words about it, lest be accused of oversimplification – even though that was my overall impression of the movie: a big, oversimplified mess. Am I using the word ‘mess’ too much? Anyway, here we go.
Annihilation is Alex Garland’s second directorial effort after the critically successful Ex Machina. His signature is evident in both works. Both films are ambitious in their storytelling, visually stunning, and attempt to ask complicated philosophical questions with no clear answers. In both films, the sci-fi element is an ‘outside’ force that invades the otherwise normal world of the protagonist. A programmer in Ex Machina is brought to an isolated place to review a groundbreaking A.I. Likewise, in Annihilation the Shimmer expands on an unsuspecting earth threatening to devour it.
Unlike Ex Machina, however, Annihilation fails to forge anything meaningful out of all the cerebral sci-fi elements which are undoubtedly present. There is smart writing in there. The evidence of an intelligent mind at work is omnipresent throughout the film, but the effort never quite coalesces into something profound. Instead, the final product resembles a mashup of concepts thrown together hoping something will come out of it.
Even though I don’t necessarily believe in clear-cut genres, I think the basic plot of Annihilation fits most comfortably under the ‘sci-fi mystery’ classification. Something spooky happens, and the characters have to figure out what it is, and how to deal with. The tension lies in the mystery, and in a deeper sense, in the intellectual exploration of the Shimmer – much like in the movie Stalker, a clear influence in the conceptualization of the Shimmer. Nevertheless, writer/director Alex Garland seems to lack confidence in his premise, and forces in external and unnecessary tension throughout the movie. Wild animal attacks; infighting between the characters which when resolved feels like an utter waste of time; a love affair barely relevant to the plot. All these would be forgivable if they at least created an interesting drama. But they don’t. They simply detract from an already inconsistent sci-fi story.
The inconsistencies in Annihilation concern not so much the plot as they do the theme of the movie. The plot makes sense on a superficial level. But if you attempt to dig deeper, you’re bound to hit a brick wall – or get lost in a labyrinth of scientific faux-pas. The movie contains scientific concepts all throughout that don’t lead anywhere, and make no contribution to any thoughtful analysis of the movie. For example, the conversation that Lena and Kane have in one of the flashbacks about cell death and aging has no bearing later on. What was Garland trying to say there? Something about death I suppose, hence that ridiculous bit of dialogue about self-destruction. The idea of linking programmed cellular death (I assume they’re referring to the process known as Apoptosis) to the human tendencies of “self-destruction” (a behavioral process) is not only scientifically atrocious, but fails also as a metaphor. Apoptosis, when not defective, is a mechanism for survival, not destruction. This is pretty bad dialogue considering that both characters involved are accomplished scientists.
Of course, the comment on self-destruction is not the only scientific inaccuracy in the movie, but trying to pinpoint all such faults in sci-fi seem like an exercise in futility. Contrary to writers like Asimov, I don’t think that the science in science-fiction needs to always be accurate. If it fits the story, bend the science all you want. I do concede, however, that some type of stories do require accuracy, and Annihilation is one of those stories. First, because it is set in the real world, featuring real scientist that need to know real science. And second, because it explores the philosophical implications of certain scientific truths, and therefore those scientific truths must be accurate for the philosophy to carry any weight.
But I digress.
Annihilation is not without merits. As I already mentioned, the plot follows through nicely and the mystery never descends into boredom. There are ups and downs, but Garland manages to keep his audience engaged for the most part.
Perhaps the most impressive element of the film is its visual aesthetic. Particularly inside The Shimmer. Whereas the real world outside the Shimmer is mostly composed of monotone and muted colors, inside The Shimmer is bright and lively and full of color (another influence from Stalker here). Cinematography and production design work wonderfully together to create a believable – and at the same time stunning – alien world within the Shimmer. Garland is quite aware of that, and thus lets his camera linger on these visual wonders. We get a good look of trees that resemble humans, of the patterns inside the lighthouse, of the alien creature. Modern directors tend to forget that film is a visual medium; and sometimes that may only consist of beautiful, well-composed shots without the need of constant action or dialogue.
Ultimately, Annihilation promised something that it couldn’t deliver. Though it was not terrible (not at all), it falls into that category of films for which expectations are high, perhaps unfairly, or prematurely so. It doesn’t lack intellectualism, but it lacks coherency and clear vision. Perhaps it should have simmered a little longer in the writer/director’s mind; perhaps it should have been more faithful to the source material; or perhaps it should have never been made. I don’t know.