The first time I heard of this film was when I read Lydia Schoch’s review for it, which she’d highlighted on Twitter. The film is based on a book (part of a trilogy) by Jeff VanderMeer, which I’ve not read; at this point, I can’t decide if I will read the trilogy or not.
What intrigued me about the film to begin with was the fact that I had not heard of it. So, I mooched around the internet to find out why there’d hardly been any mention of the film when it was released in 2018. According to this Guardian article, “Paramount, the studio behind Annihilation, started to get cold feet after test screenings for the film suggested mainstream audiences found [the director, Alex] Garland’s film overly chilly and intellectually complex…” One of the financiers wanted changes to be made, but Garland and producer, Scott Rudin, stuck to their guns and refused. A deal was then struck which saw Paramount release the film in America, Canada and China with Netflix streaming the film in other countries. Needless to say, Garland was not impressed – “We made the film for cinema.”
All I can say is, it’s such a shame when studios don’t have the confidence to take a chance and give a much wider audience the benefit of the doubt. I can’t help but wonder if the fact that the main leads were women had anything to do with it. But kudos to Garland and Rudin for not backing down.
Back to the film. The story follows a group of scientists who enter a large, quarantined area that’s gradually growing, called ‘The Shimmer’, caused by something alien that had struck a lighthouse deep in the Shimmer. They’re not the first ones to enter; those who have gone in before them – all soldiers, all men – have failed to return. The scientists’ aim is to study the Shimmer and, hopefully, unlock the key to understanding it so it can be stopped.
The scientists are made up of Lena, the main character, a cellular biologist who had served in the army; Dr Ventress, a psychologist, responsible for choosing who enters the Shimmer; Cass Sheppard, an anthropologist; Josie Radek, a physicist and Anya Thorensen, the group’s paramedic.
The film opens in the present, in a glass-panelled room with Lena being questioned by a man in a Hazmat suit while others watch from the outside. Although she knows the fate of two of her team members, she doesn’t know what happened to the other two. Most of her answers are, “I don’t know.”
We’re then taken to the past, to a university class, where Lena is teaching her speciality, cellular biology. Tellingly, she’s discussing cell division, something that features regularly throughout the film. We learn she has yet to move on from the disappearance of her husband, Kane, a soldier who had left a year ago on a mission so secret, he was not allowed to say anything about it.
Out of the blue, Kane returns. Despite the shock and disbelief, Lena is, of course, overjoyed to see him again. But it doesn’t take her long to suspect something’s wrong. When he starts bleeding, she calls an ambulance, which is hijacked by a military-like team.
Lena meets Dr Ventress who tells her, she and Kane are in a secret facility; Kane is unconscious, suffering massive organ failure. He’s also the first person to emerge from the Shimmer.
According to Dr Ventress, the Shimmer, a phenomenon that appeared about three years previous, is what the facility is studying. It blocks any form of communication from the inside, which means they have no idea what happened to the people they’d sent in. Once you cross the threshold, you’re on your own, with no outside help. At its current growth rate, they expect it to cover the whole planet in a decade.
When Lena finds out Dr Ventress is leading a group of scientists into the Shimmer, she wants to join them and, after a discussion with Ventress, is allowed.
I’m not going to say anything about what happened when they entered the Shimmer as I, personally, don’t like spoilers, and I don’t want to give any away. That’s probably moot as there are tons of online articles, discussing the film and revealing practically everything that happened.
The film cuts back and forth – past, present and the Shimmer. In the past, we witness moments between Lena and Kane, and those scenes come up at crucial points while the team are in the Shimmer, in the form of Lena remembering. Interestingly, when Ventress asked Lena if entering the Shimmer was her way of rescuing her husband, Lena answered, “I owe him”, not the expected, “I love him”.
What I loved about this film is it steered clear of the usual sci-fi tropes of hyped-up action and cliched stereotypes, cheap shock-violence and unnecessary romantic sub-plots. Instead, we were treated to intelligent women genuinely interested in the unsettling, beautiful but dangerous surroundings.
The women weren’t perfect by any means. They each had their personal demons they were dealing with, none of which was spoon-fed to us. Instead, we gradually learned of them through the women’s behaviour and dialogue.
Another thing I really enjoyed – these women were supportive and looked out for one another in their own ways. Granted, Ventress came across as cold, the most practical of the lot, yet her vulnerability was subtly hinted at.
There were moments of horror – not the jump-scare kind, but the kind you know is slowly, inexorably crawling towards you – but I didn’t feel they were there for shock value alone, only because directly afterwards, at least one character would respond in an intelligent way.
While we’re on the subject, there are a couple of grisly, stomach-churning scenes. But the lead-up is fairly obvious, giving you plenty of time to hide behind the cushion.
The film doesn’t rush along but moves slowly, taking its time. The longer they’re in the Shimmer, it becomes obvious the different ways the women react to it – understand it; fight it; accept it…
Their destination is the lighthouse, where they believe the answer lies. I found the scene in the lighthouse very unsettling, but also deeply beautiful and poignant.
The visuals were stunning and the music, apt, echoing the dreamlike experience of being in the Shimmer.
The film left me with more questions than answers; 3 days after watching it, I’m still going over it in my mind. It’s been a long time since any film has had that effect on me. I hope more sci-fi films will be made in this vein, exploring intelligent, complex ideas.