Annihilation is another beautiful universe that spins off into nothing
WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUND
There is a moment in Annihilation, Alex Garland’s latest sci-fi odyssey and sophomore director’s credit, where you find yourself completely lost in the film world he’s so lovingly crafted – an increasingly rare occurrence in the age of box-office explosions and character-focused indies.
When science fiction is depicted onscreen there is a fleeting edge that screenwriters, cinematographers and directors seek to grasp; great architects of this vein build a universe where you, the viewer, are at once terrified while awash in raw beauty. The Shimmer, Annihilation’s extraterrestrial, time-warping environmental enemy, hits this sweet spot with a ferocity that will wake you up if you happen to have dozed through Garland’s sleepy opening.
In The Shimmer, the world is infested with natural beauty that is both backwards, forwards and hexagonally absurd. Impossible flowers, a mosaic of bright dyes, jump to and fro – all from the same vine. A fungus bubbles and pops almost like an oil painting on an abandoned pool with a carved-out corpse at its centre. Creatures, enormous in size with their blood-soaked Byzantine jaws, wail with the screams of their latest victim.
The Shimmer is the type of environmental adversary science fiction can do best. If it’s a cliché of horror to see a protagonist needlessly fling themselves into the murky unknown – good science fiction, on the flip side, has the audience rooting for unbridled exploration. The catharsis you feel while watching Natalie Portman’s all-female squad navigate the kaleidoscopic swamps of Annihilation is rooted in terror and more importantly in uncovering the source of the terror. Like the scientists that make up the film’s core group, half of your journey through the film’s two hours is hedged on the tingling anticipation of potent discovery.
It’s a shame then, that at the end of it all, Annihilation – like much of the sci-fi green-lit for a film adaptation nowadays – underwhelmingly refuses to answer any of the questions it’s proposed throughout its two-hour journey.
Annihilation’s writing betrays its direction
During the film’s finale, Natalie Portman’s Lena, having lost the rest of her team, proceeds to the lighthouse at the epicentre of the Shimmer. In it she finds the corpse of her husband – the final moments of Dr. Ventress – as she slow dances with an alien copy of herself before fighting and ultimately killing her along with the alien phenomenon encroaching the swampland around her. In the closing sequence she embraces her confirmed, replicant husband. Roll credits.
Except that’s not quite good enough. It’s an ending that paints the rest of the world we’ve spent a considerable amount of time engrossed in as needlessly shallow, where we once perceived a complex, Lovecraftian depth. Moreover, it betrays the warrior-scientist bend of Lena. If the film set out as a beautiful vehicle to tackle notions of depression and loss it does little but look pretty and ramp up the need to find ways to tackle further depression and further loss.
Sci-fi endings need to be as well constructed as sci-fi settings
One strength, and sometimes unfortunate aspect of the genre is the capacity for imagination to run rampant. This is good when it is contained and directed, but fails when it uses cosmic logic as a shortcut to wrap up a sprawling plot that’s difficult to resolve.
Narrative issues aside, a cosmic, ambiguous event leaving no real answers isn't even original. Whenever I see a film entering spooky-space mode for its ending, I tune out. From the Marvel cinematic universe – with its increasingly larger universe-ending scenarios – to common science fiction box office fare like The Girl With All The Gifts, Arrival and Lucy, right down to could-have-been cult classics like indie-Toronto flick The Void, they all suffer similar disappointing fates.
Regardless of the laughs, tension and psychological untangling these films construct, they are all betrayed by their endings, something which disarms their storyline and renders their ability to say or do anything of interest completely moot. We remember them warmly for the pretty pictures they painted – but our universe, undaunted, simply carries on.