Thursday, 2 April 2020

Movie review: Annihilation, dir Alex Garland (2018)

The best movies say things using cinematographic means, and in his wonderful science fiction movie Garland and his team use distortion to create meaning.

It starts early, in the home that Lena (Natalie Portman) used to share with her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), as the two are facing each other across the kitchen table. Kane turned up unexpectedly one day; Lena hadn’t seen him for a year. As they sit there holding hands, in front of them is a glass of water and the camera is positioned so that you can only see their hands through it. Their fingers appear fat and odd-shaped. This is excellent foreshadowing as twinning is a theme used elsewhere in the film.

The “Shimmer” is what authorities call the phenomenon caused by a meteor strike on a US shoreline that Kane had been sent to explore. Lena and a crew of other women, some of them scientists, must also enter the Shimmer, on the periphery of which light is distorted to show a strange spectrum, like those AI-generated readings of images that were produced a few years ago and that showed a tendency of the machine to find eyes everywhere it focused on. Even inside the Shimmer light refracts as though it is seen through a prism: colours are shown as in a rainbow.

The filmmakers made Lena a biologist; this is the reason she is chosen to go into the Shimmer, though she had served in the army prior to that. Her fighting skills might come in handy and her education makes her an ideal vehicle for commentary on places the women will visit and things they will see. They must make their way to the lighthouse that was the centre of the event.

Once inside the Shimmer, they find a lush landscape of swamp and derelict buildings. Visually, this part of the movie is also excellent, redolent of the best apocalyptic dramas that have been made that use futurity as a creative trope. The bright, summery flowers are eerie, and suggest a kind of poison at the heart of the Shimmer, which is a kind of skunkworks where different approaches to understanding life on earth are tried. Rather than with the word “annihilation” the movie might better have been titled with the word “creation”: Dionysian chaos versus Apollonian calm.

As a theme, the rapturous rearrangement of matter must have compelling currency in our globalised world, where ideas from one country are borrowed for use in another, but are changed in the process (think of Japan, for instance). Despite its poor box-office, the movie deserves attention though it has a common Hollywood failing: being somewhat overdetermined. The best parts of the movie are those that you cannot precisely catalogue and I appreciated the filmmakers’ use of clever visual devices to create meaning. It is an efficient and valuable addition to the genre of alien encounters. There are a few edge-of-seat moments but the special effects near the end of the movie are wonderful.

In 2015 I saw another movie by this director, one about the nature of artificial intelligence and robots, and enjoyed it, and the new production bolsters my impression that Garland is a man of talent. 

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