*Major spoilers ahead!
As the saying goes, behind every great movie is great behind-the-scenes drama, and it’s no different with the new mind-twisting, sci-fi thriller Annihilation. Alex Garland, the director (Ex Machina) made the film, then screened it for Skydance’s David Ellison and his other producers.
The producers had some notes. Um, Alex, maybe you could change some things to help the story, I don’t know, make sense?
Garland refused to change anything, citing his own creative genius. As a semi-punishment and a way to cut their losses, Ellison decided that outside of the US and Canada, Annihilation isn’t getting a theatrical release, instead going straight to Netflix. So, while you can decide which side you take- business-savvy execs or creative-genius Garland- anyone who has seen this film can probably pinpoint the exact moment the executives started thinking, this might be a problem.
Annihilation follows Lena (Natalie Portman) a biologist and former soldier, who joins a team to go into “The Shimmer,” an alien disaster zone in the swamps of Florida, where teams have gone in, and have never returned. The fim is a gorgeous, tense, slow burn of thoughtful pondering and, for the most part, a stellar use of science fiction imagery to convey a compelling human story. It has an incredible ensemble cast. I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes slow-burn science fiction. It is a film that is difficult to describe, and even more difficult to review without discussing the ending, so come back once you’ve seen the film, and let’s discuss what Annihilation may or may not be saying.
OK, seen it? Good, let’s move on. It’s tempting to think at the end of the film that this is one of those pseudo-intellectual films where the director throws out a bunch of images and words and tries to see what sticks and if it would make an Intro to Philosophy student go hmmm, interesting. I can imagine Garland trying to explain his brilliance to Paramount producers, “IT’S SO DEEP, DUDE! It’s so deep, I don’t even know what it means. Deeper than deep, you feel me? But I don’t need answers, I’m here to ask questions, about the meaning of life and stuff. There’s so much thinking, but at the same time I have an alien mirror- dancing with Natalie Portman! And that’s what makes it deep! Why is my eye twitching?”
But here, I’ll bite, because I think there might actually be a compelling message here. So based on the final cliffhanger (is Lena a clone or not?) there are two options that relate to the recurring theme of the film.
Option One: Lena is not a clone. The clone died.
The recurring theme in the film is self-destruction. All of the team members self-destruct in some capacity, and volunteering for the trip is the ultimate act of self-destruction. This is the foil to the Shimmer itself, which annihilates, but then recreates. It is revealed that Lena is having an affair, a self-hating kind of self-destruction that is ruining her and her marriage, and her guilt is consuming her, causing her to go on the mission.
In the lighthouse, she hands the bomb to, supposedly, the clone, and the clone dies. The clone, as it burns up, touches her husband, someone else who self-destructed and the symbol of Lena’s self-destruction. When the clone dies, so does the Shimmer, the reason for the mission Lena went on to self-destruct. So Lena kills the dangerous, self-destructive part of her. And then she moves on. I like that interpretation, it’s straightforward and thematic.
Option Two: Lena is the clone, and real-Lena died.
This is the more problematic option for me, but here’s my hot take. While Lena at the end tells the interrogator (Benedict Wong) she doesn’t know why the aliens sent the Shimmer, it is implied it is because the aliens seek to annihilate humanity. They want to change it by destroying it. This aligns with Lena’s self-destruction and desire for change, so when she becomes an alien at the end, this is just a representation of what was in her all along.
This ending is the weakest part of Annihilation because science fiction and fantasy is at its best when it asks questions about humanity. Sci-fi, fantasy, genres in general, are supposed to use the unreal or exaggerated or hypothetical to answer real questions about human nature, and reveal truths about ourselves. The aliens are never really about aliens. The technology is never just about technology. The Shimmer should not actually just be about a rainbow-bubble-monster-zone.
But in the third act, the aliens and the Shimmer and the modern-dance metallic clone alien becomes the focus, not the humans. Even with my interpretations, they focus in on the sci-fi. Gimmick is a strong word, but basically I am too busy thinking about “What happened, what did the alien do?” and not enough about “What does the alien mean? What is this trying to reveal about humanity? About humans? Did I see truth reflected?”
So in that case, Annihilation does not use its premise to its strength. Instead, it feels self-indulgent at times, wanting to mull over its twists and turns, without using that to say anything. Yet I think any flaws in the ending are saved by the first two acts, which do focus in on the characters and their interactions, developments, and changes. It builds to say something about humanity. The sci-fi elements are an exciting bonus, but are not the point, and that is why Annihilation, on a whole, ends up working as a great film.