Lets talk Annihilation: A Movie Review With Theories
Last night I went and saw Annihilation. The theater was about 2/3 full and skewed about forty-five years old and up. I, being the quality parent I am took my eleven-year-old. What can I say he’s a lover of science fiction and if I do say so myself quite bright. I was sure he could handle it. We LOVED IT! We here at Signal Horizon have been fans of the book for a long time. Check out the Horror Pod Class’s episode about The New Weird for an in-depth conversation about the subgenre. Mark my words people this is this generations 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was that weird and that brilliant. Full disclosure folks, I have read all three Southern Reach novels multiple times(ok it’s 4 times each). I went into the theater hoping for the best but expecting the worst. The critics seemed to be split on opinions.
The director Alex Garland said he only read Annihilation once and then wrote the screenplay the next morning. He never even read Authority or Acceptance. I thought Ex Machina was outstanding but I was worried. I needn’t have worried at all. In Garland’s capable hands this was a masterpiece. In another director’s control, this very likely could have completely gone off the rails and been a silly disaster. I encourage everyone to go to the theater and see this movie. Do not wait for Netflix. We need to send a loud voice that this kind of movie is wanted and needed today. Hollywood needs this kind of visionary. I enjoyed this movie so much I won’t just provide yet another review, I thought we could explore some of the hidden gems in this movie and deep dive into the dolphin filled waters together(if you have read the books you get that reference). Plus my husband is tired of hearing me talk about it.
First the visuals. Oh my God, the visuals. This movie is stunning. I can’t even with those crystal trees and tropical flowers. Even the grotesque was somehow profoundly beautiful. This movie was shot with love and it shows. Each scene was shot thoughtfully and as not just a feast for the eyes but as foreshadowing for the story. The sets are equal parts cold and harsh and fantastical and lovely.
The costuming simple but effective, more on this later. The acting was excellent. Natalie Portman is cold and odd, even before entering the shimmer, exactly as she should be. The underrated Jennifer Jason Leigh is pleasantly sinister and an almost unrecognizable Gina Rodriguez is flat out amazing as Anya. Anya is brazen and brash yet very, very fragile and all of that shows. The heart of our group is Tuva Novotny’s Sheppard and Tessa Thompson’s Josie.
All of these ladies are phenomenal and keep the story ringing true despite the unbelievable setting. The music and sound is remarkable. The use of the same underlying song by the incomparable Crosby Stills and Nash, Helplessly Hoping is haunting and very effective. It underlies what everyone is feeling throughout. The sounds provided during the climax lighthouse scene are creepy and alien and evoke a very Stanley Kubrick vibe. Somehow Garland surrounded himself with artists and actors who really got what he was trying to do and helped him deliver it. It was a spectacular mind-bender to be savored long after the final credits role.
There are so many little secrets winking and nodding at us throughout I couldn’t help but mention them. The use of the glass jar to distort and combine Kane and Lena’s fingers when Kane first returns. That is one of the most interesting camera shots I have ever seen. It is simple but very effective in foreshadowing the eventual concluding scene. This use of an ordinary glass of water both conveys the necessary building block of life and the literal fluidity of said life. It is genius.
Lena and Kane’s hospital whites compared to Lena’s orange arrival scrubs was such an easy choice but spoke volumes about what may have happened. It is symbolism at it’s best. So subtle you almost miss it. Both Lena and Kane appear to be blanks to some degree at the end of the movie wearing only white. Empty copies of their former selves if you will. She becomes Ghost Bird of course and he something else entirely. The use of costuming here sets the stage for the final reveal.
The growing tattoos appear to be a real bone of contention for some. No, they are not in the books but they serve as an obvious and deliberate path towards replication. The books are so great because our imagination can build on the glorious framework of the story. Much like the endless flowers growing over everything in the movie. There needed to be an obvious beacon for mutation measurement and this was a solid choice. The tattoo appears only after exposure to the Shimmer. Lena does not have it to begin with but develops it later after several days in. There is a clear picture of her arm with a bruise that clearly shows no tattoo. Some develop it and some do not for inexplicable reasons. Dr. Ventress and Josie notably do not have it and each evolve into something different from the Shimmer. Kane and Anya have it and come out the other side.
The tattoo design of an Ouroboros, a snake eating itself in an infinity sign is a smart choice. The theme of self-destruction runs deep throughout this movie and does help with continuity between book and movie in an odd way. Ghost Bird/Lena is reserved and struggles inter-personally before the Shimmer and her inability to connect with her husband and ultimate affair ring true to the book. Yes, the affair is unnecessary, but the subtlety of emotional distance is hard to pull off impactfully on screen. The Ouroboros is thought to also symbolize renewal which ties nicely with the changing terrafirma. The flora and fauna of the Shimmer is mutating but towards evolution as opposed to extinction. The flowers and duplication of the deer, in particular, seem to hint at regrowth as opposed to destruction. It’s important to note in physics annihilation does not mean obliteration but changing of matter into energy. Lastly, the symbol has been linked to the early observations of the Milky Way which ties the extraterrestrial angle in.
Dr. Vetters deception is a major omission. Her angling and manipulation along with the hypnosis was completely ignored. We get just a hint of the deception when it is revealed she is dying thus she doesn’t care if she makes it back or not, but the full force of her machinations are not explored. Jennifer Jason Leigh does a great job playing creepy and conniving though so this works despite the over site.
Helplessly Hoping by Crosby, Stills and Nash is the perfect tie in to this movie. The lyrics although written decades ago feel written for this movie alone. Specifically: They are one person. They are two alone. They are three together. They are four for each other.
Although originally intending love and family these lyrics are obvious reminders of cell division, mutation, and life. This mournful, soulful song captures the mood of the film. A haunting, hallucinogenic lullaby for the Weird (capital W on purpose).
The crystal tree forest fire was spectacular. Garland’s imagination knows no bounds evidently. Although the lighthouse scene is very different from the book it is reminiscent in the prophetic phrase from Annihilation:There shall be a fire that knows your name, and in the presence of the strangling fruit, it’s dark flame shall acquire every part of you. These words written in the fungi-like plant life on the walls of the tower come to roost in the lighthouse in a pleasing way that explains rather than confounds the lovers of these books.
The greyish iridescent alien copy is an excellent example of The Blank trope. It is a literal blank until sufficient time is spent to mirror and learn. It further embodies Lena’s book character summary of Area X as mirroring our world to the extreme while still maintaining its otherness.
As a parable for natural evolution both the movie and books work seamlessly. Neither is too preachy while both hitting home the importance of what we do not know and what we take for granted.
In terms of all out scariest scene, the Sheppard voiced bear takes the cake. This horrific glimpse into our future is so terrifying everyone in the theater squirmed in their seats. With one creature Garland managed to combine all the human/animal creations from within the original book. The team posits it is a mind-meld of sorts that allows for this anomaly. The book does a better job of explaining that it is, in fact, the evolution of the person themselves which is much more disturbing, I will forgive this though as the bear is utterly scary.
Lena and Kane’s house from outside the Shimmer seems to be duplicated inside and it is the setting for the human voice bear showdown. This seems to hint at the possibility of all things being replicated, not just living organisms. Either Kane or Lena provided the source material and up it sprung.
Lena is reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks at the beginning of the movie. This is a novel depicting a woman whose cancer cells do not die naturally and she was experimented on without consent by doctors for disease research. Her cells are credited with the Polio vaccination discovery. Her cells are thought to be the first immortal cell line.
There was no crawler, and that is sad. However, did anyone really feel like that could be a realized creature? I was blown away by the grey blank and even though I loved the crawler from the books it was not needed in the movie. This movie is intense and anxiety-inducing until the last shot. It should be seen in the theater to appreciate it’s full impact. Do not wait and don’t let your love of the book dissuade you. It is different but just as good. I know I for one will be talking about this movie for weeks to come. Hit us up on Facebook or Twitter and let’s talk all things weird. If you haven’t read the trilogy yet. Buy a copy then come back here and lets discuss some more.
As the Television Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.