We’ve seen this question come from many films, not just science fiction or horror, but what does it mean to be human? How do we define humanity? To look at one recent example, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 specifically obfuscated the distinction between humans and artificial intelligence to convey that memories and the ability to have them are what separates humanity from otherness, and that then, to an extent, artificial intelligence can be more human than humans. While it’s a thought-provoking assertion, it only represents a mere fraction of how we can define humanity in terms of what is ‘other’ – though, to be fair, it’d be difficult and quite possibly unnecessary to specifically focus on more than one aspect of humanity in a sensible runtime, so thank goodness for the multiple-decade genre lexicon, with each entry interested in such quandaries fixating on a particular issue.
With the exception of Dredd and possibly Sunshine (haven’t yet had the potential pleasure), writer-director Alex Garland hasn’t shied away from such thoughts in his career, using narratives with a strong dichotomy between humanity and various sides of otherness. 28 Days Later was an emotionally effective revamping of zombie mythology and how we perceive zombies as ‘other,’ Never Let Me Go puts the viewer in the shoes of protagonists who identify with a rather cruelly existential otherness and Ex Machina uses this duality to, in part, examine how we underestimate rapid technological advancement, as well as a broad feminist reading regarding how men underestimate the abilities of women.
In his adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s eco-thriller “Annihilation,” Garland employs a similarly placid, if also disquietingly surrealist style as his previous directorial attempt to contemplate an even more abstract form of perceived otherness: the person we are versus the person we become when inevitably shaped by trauma. Once again, though this time to a more explicit degree, we see Garland use natural, or in this case unnatural, settings to establish a link between humans and the environment, this time linking personal trauma with the trauma associated with unforeseen cosmic and biological events that affect nature in profound ways. By the closing shots, however, it seems Garland’s hope for how we address our own suffering couldn’t be bleaker.
It’s a challenging film to confront not just because its narrative structure doesn’t follow many typical beats or patterns, but also because coming face to face with this heady, sobering thematic undercurrent means reflecting on our own selves; how we’ve dealt with loss, vices, depression, self-destruction, etc. It’s noted early on in the second act that all of the protagonists we follow on this strange descent come with their own demons and dark pasts, and in what’s called “The Shimmer,” they’re forced to face the constant unpredictability and various threats of genetically mutating nature that is at first glance familiar, but then very quickly reveals itself as a frightening, Lovecraftian unknown – one brand of cosmic pessimism facing another, and surely someone’s read a passage or two from Eugene Thacker’s “In the Dust of this Planet.” The familiar scares we expect from other genre pictures are intermittent here, but Garland’s proclivity for paralyzing existential questions and the weirdness of story flow engender a subtly terrifying viewing experience equipped with a mind-melting atmosphere to fill the cracks.
It’s playfully demented in its subversion of genre conventions much in the way Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread did the same for, to borrow a friend’s term, stuffy period dramas. You think it’ll proceed like a psychological thriller rife with increasing paranoia driven by a setting that’s become a character of its own, and it takes a turn. You think it could possibly play out like a strange creature feature, not too dissimilar from the progression of something like David Bruckner’s The Ritual, and then it takes another turn. Like the DNA of all life that inhabits the Shimmer, Annihilation’s own genetic makeup and structural form keep shifting in bizarre ways, but also like Phantom Thread, it isn’t a twisty story. Rather, it’s a straightforward plot with some highly unusual elements and choices keeping the wheel rolling.
These aren’t the facets that keep us completely committed, however. Any science fiction film can have trippy visuals and an aesthetic as inexplicable as this – even those that aren’t “too intellectual” or “too complicated. Oddly enough, even though most of the characters here are written rather broadly, like The Last Jedi, we remain engaged because of the purpose they serve. They represent differing reactions to our own trauma, ranging from many extremes, and it helps that the particular environment surrounding them signifies the turmoil they have to mentally overcome. When affected by trauma, we don’t tend to look at ourselves the same way. Memories and how we remember them are altered, and future behavior is informed by our immediate reaction among other choices. Whether or not we succumb to our darkest impulses, it’s difficult to recognize the same person that existed prior to the impact. It’s not exactly to say that we’ve been replaced by another being, but it can feel that way.
What you’ll feel and what you’ll be thinking about when the credits roll will depend on specific factors personal to you perhaps more so than most films you see in a calendar year – it’d also help if you extracted the same reading as I did. While the visuals are hypnotizing, Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score contributes an equally mesmerizing aura, the performances are generally good – Gina Rodriguez is arguably the only performer who sticks out for the better here, though no one does for any negative reasons – and the tone succeeds enough to help Annihilation excel by creeps and bounds, they aren’t the things that stay implanted come the next weekend. Well, maybe some of the visuals, but you know where I’m going with this point.
To say this film isn’t for everyone is a bit of a forgone conclusion, but anyone on the fence should at least give it a chance. Perhaps there are other worthy outlets that can engage your sense of self, but prescribing yourself to Garland’s treatment can’t hurt.