I love sci-fi, and even as someone in the midst of a lifelong love affair with sci-fi, I can admit that the majority of sci-fi movies come to us deeply flawed. Some of them can be absolutely filled to the brim with ideas, but budget restrictions, casting issues, or other production problems get in the way of a studio delivering a piece close to perfect. Sometimes, the filmmaker’s vision just outstrips the practical side of makin’ movies.
At the start of 2018, Alex Garland’s Annihilation arrived fully formed on Netflix UK and not in nationwide cinemas as we’d expected, for infuriating reasons. And unlike The Cloverfield Paradox, another big 2018 sci-fi outing that befell a similar fate, it was essentially a masterpiece filled with unexpected set pieces and zoological nightmare fuel, which made the decision to dump it on the streaming service seem colossally unfair.
Truly, though, Annihilation is just not for everyone, least of all audiences that require a little more PEWPEWPEWBANGBANG for their buck, so maybe its fate to become a cult classic was already sealed long before it landed on Netflix.
It’s also an oddity the likes of which we don’t see too often these days. Somehow a step up from the also-fantastic Ex Machina, Garland’s follow-up film flows over you in the weirdest way, like someone fed half a Capcom game into Google Deep Dream and asked it to recreate the feeling of being lost as a moving album cover.
The director made an arguably solid choice to keep his adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s “unfilmable” novel virtually explanation-free, but again, this was infuriating for plenty of people. The story of Lena (Natalie Portman), a cellular biology professor looking for answers after her husband (Oscar Isaac) falls ill on an expedition to “The Shimmer” – an electromagnetic anomaly that is slowly expanding to swallow up more and more real estate – might well be one that is always questioning, but it never appears unsure of its path.
In fact, Annihilation is up there with the best of what sci-fi can offer. It doesn’t signpost its weirdness, or spoon-feed you answers. It allows you to go on a journey into the unknown with Lena and see some of your own intangible elements adapted, refracted and reflected back from the screen, and so, when watching the film, everyone is capable of having a different experience.
Lena’s research girl gang of Dr. Ventress, Josie, Cassie and Anya succumb to The Shimmer in various ways as she’s quickly pushed into a confrontation with the strange entity at its core, but she remains an almost passive observer for the most part, even as the phenomenon mutates and hybridises every organism it envelops – and the same can be said of us.
For some people, Annihilation is a meditation on self-destruction. For others, it’s all about grief. For me, the choice to allow five female characters in important stages of their lives be at the centre of this strange universe made me wonder how much of our time, our nature, and of nature itself, is altered by events out of our control.
The film ends with as much uncertainty as it holds at the outset. It doesn’t really fully explain what has happened in the past, what is happening in the present, or what will happen in the future. It’s open to interpretation, even as its anchor remains in the grips of science.
Perhaps the one thing I feel most certain about is this: Annihilation will remain an important entry into the genre for decades to come, and everything else is inside the bubble.