Warning: Some spoilers follow.
Some science fiction films are groundbreaking in the sense that they open up new ways of seeing and looking at the world. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one such film, as is Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Ridley Scott’s Alien. These films unsettle us, forcing us to live in a very uncomfortable sort of world, one that is both like and unlike the one that we experience in the everyday. Annihilation, with its unstable narrative, exquisitely unsettling visual composition, and uncanny sound design, is another such film, a reminder of the continuing power of science fiction to challenge our ways of making sense of the world…and of the cinematic image.
The film begins when Lena (Natalie Portman) is reunited with her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who had gone missing in an area known as the Shimmer over a year earlier. Determined to find out what caused his disappearance–and his physical breakdown after he re-emerged–she agrees to enter the Shimmer with a group of other women to discover the source of the disturbance, what it may want, and whether it can be reversed. Once there, however, they encounter increasingly disturbing mutations, including an alligator with teeth like a shark and a hideously disfigured (and utterly terrifying) bear. Ultimately, Lena must confront the entity that has formed the Shimmer, in all of its utterly alien intensity.
At the level of narrative, Annihilation poses a challenge. It is not a straightforward story, but is instead related largely in flashback from Lena’s perspective. However, as we quickly learn, there is much that Lena cannot explain, either to the scientists interrogating her in the army station outside the Shimmer. And, just as importantly, it’s entirely possible that Lena, having been affected (infected?) with the entity that has come to earth, may not in fact be herself in the way that we normally expect individual subjects to be. Perhaps, after all, she has become something entirely new, something capable of turning narrative against itself.
The film also registers a fundamental instability in the way we make sense of ourselves as discrete, self-contained subjects walled off from the external world. When Lena asserts at the end that she isn’t sure that the entity has a purpose other than the continual destabilization of life on earth, she gestures toward an uncomfortable truth: there are things in the universe that simply do not behave in any way that accords with our own limited epistemologies. This is particularly discomfiting, as the entire film’s narrative centers on a search for knowledge, a desire to understand what it is that has caused the Shimmer and driven so many soldiers to madness and death.
What’s more, the film is also a challenge to us as spectators. Through both its stunning visual and sound designs, the film engenders a feeling of a loss of self, something akin to the sublime. This emerges in two important ways, one small in scope and the other larger. In the first, smaller-scoped sequence, Lena gazes into a microscope at a dollop of her own blood, and she is dismayed to see her DNA–the basic structure of her identity–changing and mutating right before her eyes. This sequence is unsettling precisely because of its oscillation between the seen and the unseen. While Lena is able to see her innermost self rapidly transforming, her external self remains largely unchanged. This is in marked contrast to so many of the other characters in the film, who are shown losing parts of themselves, either to the predatory bear or to the more benign plant beings that gradually absorb one of the team members. This sequence engenders a profound feeling of unease in us as spectators, as we are forced to accept that, for all that we might like to think of ourselves as discrete subjects, we are constantly subjected to and changed by forces we cannot see or control.
The second is much more radical. The director has been very open about the fact that it is best seen on a big screen, and while I am not usually one who buys into the idea of medium specificity, but in this case the sheer overwhelmingly dazzling nature of the big screen really does make all the difference. There is a scene near the end where Lena finds herself face to face with the radical alterity that is the extraterrestrial being, and the screen explodes into a radiant nimbus that is rendered even more unsettling by the pulsing of the soundtrack. In this startling instance, the film invites us to feel as if we are being lifted right out of our bodies or, perhaps more precisely, as if our bodies have meshed with the film screen. Something, it seems to me, is lost in this exchange between the body of the film and the body of the viewer, and there is also something unsettlingly pleasurable about this experience.
Thus, the film’s title is not just about humanity’s propensity for self-destruction but also a distillation of the film’s challenge to individual subjectivity. In that sense, Annihilation is the perfect film for our current age, in which all truth–and all sense of self–seems to be in a current state of flux, disruption and, in the most extreme cases, implosion. The fact that the scientists who question Lena seem to have no more ability to explain what has happened than Lena herself does further calls into question the regimes of knowledge that govern almost every aspect of our being. And the fact that the film’s aesthetic remain so disturbing also registers, I argue, the angst of an era in which the old certainties are passing away and, somewhat surprisingly, turns those anxieties into a viewing experience that sends a quiver across the flesh, a shudder of pleasured revulsion.
Annihilation is a horror science fiction film in the best possible way, one that pushes the boundaries not only of what film as a medium can do, but also what we as spectators can readily bring into our own bodies, minds and, dare I say it, souls.