I suspect the reason I got to watch Annihilation on Netflix is the same reason that I enjoyed it so much. Its parent studio Paramount didn’t believe it would make money on a theatrical release, and thus didn’t spend much energy on promoting the film. And I find myself unwilling to believe that the fact it stars five women—women who are presented as complex and intellectual, who aren’t present as objects for sexual consumption, but whose competence is assumed in every scene and every glance—had nothing to do with that.
Annihilation is luminous. It’s dizzying and visionary and strange, a balletic question with no certain answer, peculiar and horrifying and layered and gorgeous, and lit from within with its own artistic vision: unified, structurally and thematically, in a way that few Hollywood films ever are. It’s a film that speaks with its silences, embraces them. It layers implication, symbolic meaning, from the opening shot of a dividing and re-dividing cell—revealed by Natalie Portman’s Lena in a lecture to her students to be a tumour cell—to its asides about grief and self-destruction, and from the horrifying wonders (and bewildering horrors) of the Shimmer to the fact that the film is subtly framed as Lena’s narrative, and all things considered (“Lena is a liar,” as Anya Thorensen, played with brilliant intensity by Gina Rodriguez, says in a moment fraught with psychological horror), we can’t be entirely sure about our narrator’s reliability.
Is it a film about willing self-destruction? Or one about the inevitability of self-destruction? Is it a film about the vital force of change, about creation? Or is it a film about decay?
Maybe it’s all of these things.
Five women enter a zone (“the Shimmer”) which resists all scientific investigation and from which only one person has—perhaps—returned alive. Portman’s Lena, a biologist and former soldier, knows that person. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaacs) made his way home to her from the Shimmer, but to all intents and purposes, he’s dying. In the course of the film, we learn things that complicate our view of what seems at first like a straightforward narrative of Lena’s loving marriage, and her motivation for joining the team to enter the Shimmer. Love, revenge, scientific curiosity, grief, guilt, desperation: Annihilation offers us many reasons for Lena’s actions, and never settles on one. Perhaps Lena herself is not motivated by anything simple and unitary: the film resolves itself in her complexities.
Lena is joined by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), geomorphologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and medic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez)—who all have their own unspoken reasons for setting off on a mission from which return seems unlikely, at best—as they set out to find the Shimmer’s source.
The Shimmer is disorienting, beautiful, horrifying, bizarre. With every fresh discovery they make, the women find it becomes less explicable.
All of the performances are good. But Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, and Tessa Thompson are outstanding: like the film, they’re luminously compelling, difficult to look away from.
This is a fantastic film. It’s clever, and it’s deep, and it’s science fiction the likes of which I never expected to see made for the big screen. How often do you see five women together on screen, doing science at the edge of the known? Being complex and conflicted and driven and a team (until they fracture under strain)?
Annihilation is based on the first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. I don’t expect we’ll see the rest of the trilogy made for the screen, considering Annihilation’s budget versus how little the apparatus of Hollywood supported its release, but dear god. This film is fucking amazing, and you all owe it to yourselves to see it.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.