When asked about my favorite movies from the first half of 2018, there’s one film that remains head and shoulders above any other new release I’ve seen this year. This film shook me so much upon my first watch that I went back to watch it again in the theater that very same day. I couldn’t shake its images and music from my mind. It lived with me like its own kind of organism, ironic given the subject matter in the film. Or maybe it wasn’t ironic. Maybe that’s the incredible effect of this film. The film I’m referring to is, of course, Alex Garland’s Annihilation.
Annihilation is a mind-bending journey of a film – something we’ve become accustomed to in modern filmmaking. It seems that films of this type often try to create puzzles for the audience to figure out (think of a film like Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, for instance). What Annihilation does, instead, is set up the idea that there are some puzzles that can’t be solved. They are lived with. They change us. The film is an incredible meditation on depression and one’s concept of self. But even when viewed through that prism, there is simply too much to catch on one viewing, or even three.
This is a film with ambition and something to say. I generally prefer for films to help me consider and work through the cares of life rather than forget them. Annihilation does this with incredible precision. The film focuses on Lena (Natalie Portman), a cellular biology professor and former Army solider. Lena’s husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), had been sent on a mission with his Special Forces team and has been missing for over a year. Lena believes him to be dead.
When we see Kane walking up the stairs of Lena’s house, however, we get our first hint that something weird is going on. It’s far from the last time that this film will put us on the spectrum of head scratching to downright, jaw-dropping disbelief.
Early on in the film, we see a meteor strike a lighthouse. Something begins emanating from the lighthouse where the meteor lands. We learn that this emanation is called “The Shimmer.” Lena is told this by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is commissioning another expedition to investigate what exactly this phenomenon really is. You see, other groups had been sent before, but Kane was the only person to ever return. Lena joins with the next expedition team, and neither she nor we as the audience have any idea of what’s in store.
There is a particular scene near the end where Lena enters the lighthouse where “The Shimmer” began. It is transfixing thanks to the visuals and Portman’s performance, but the music adds so much here as well. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow collaborated on the film’s score, and it reaches an incredible crescendo in this closing scene. I remember being absolutely blown away by the sequence when I saw it for the first time in the theater, and the experience did not dissipate when I went back to watch the film again.
There is an emotional element here as you realize that Lena is wrestling with some form of herself. Whether it is her past, her sins, her marriage or something new that has sprouted from within, she is engaged in a fight. We do not know how or if she will be changed by it, and to what extent. The scene is horrific in some ways and beautiful in others. I’m at a loss for ways to adequately describe it, as I can’t think of a similar experience I’ve had when watching a film.
By the end, we’re left wondering what is real and what isn’t. What have we just experienced and what does it have to say? Annihilation is the type of film I want to see. It has great ambition and it is visually stunning. The performances add nuance throughout the film, and the technical elements add in key moments of brilliance. This is great filmmaking, and it is easily my favorite film from the first half of 2018.