Ask any science-fiction fan, and they will tell you that the best sci-fi stories are the ones that are deeply and uncomfortably personal. Oftentimes, the best ones are about a single person confronting something bizarre and unearthly that either changes them, or makes them realize who they’ve been all along. The best ones climax not with an epic battle or the defeat of a terrible foe, but with one decision. One decision that will change everything.
Much like Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival before it, Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a shining example of what science-fiction can be when the narrative hinges on one woman and the one world-altering decision she must make: Do I save my world, or not?
Although they have almost nothing do with each other, I bring up Arrival instead of Garland’s previous film, Ex Machina, because Arrival and Annihilation feel like two sides of the same coin. Both feature complex and imperfect women in lead roles who must carry the burden of saving the world at the expense of personal happiness. Both women make their decisions based on love. But they do not make the same decision, and compared to Arrival, that is partially what makes Annihilation so fascinating. But only partially.
The rest, I want you to see for yourself. I don’t actually want to talk about this movie at length, because it’s so worth going into blind, especially if you’ve not yet read the masterful novel by Jeff VanderMeer upon which it’s based. For those who have? This movie is VanderMeer’s book, refracted. It’s not a straight adaptation, and it’s not a better adaptation; it captures the spirit of the book, but it’s entirely its own animal. Like an alligator with shark teeth. Like a woman who sprouts and blooms.
Halfway through the movie, when I realized I would never see the Crawler, the ghost bird, the Tunnel or “where lies the strangling fruit” on screen, was I disappointed? Maybe a little. But what I got instead more than made up for it.
To start with, the cast is truly incredible, and their characters whole and well-written. Natalie Portman leads as Lena, a biologist whose husband (Oscar Isaac) disappeared on a military mission to a mysterious and unnatural place called Area X. He reappears a year later, wrong and dying, the only person who has ever come back from what a government agency known as the Southern Reach has nicknamed “the Shimmer” after its odd and unsettling border. Upon learning the seemingly suicidal nature of her husband’s mission, Lena joins the next expedition alongside Anya (the amazingly talented Gina Rodriguez), a bristly paramedic; Josie (Tessa Thompson), a fragile physicist; Cass (Tuva Novotny), a grieving anthropologist; and Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist who seems dead to anything but the answers she seeks in Area X.
This basic explanation of the plot is necessary to understand who these characters are and why they are so special. At a critical point in the film, Dr. Ventress tells Lena that there is a difference between suicide and self-destruction. Almost no one succumbs to suicide, she says, but almost everyone self-destructs. This theme carries the movie, epitomizes Area X and contains the question that each of these characters must answer for themselves: What am I supposed to do when the world is too much? When marriage fails, addiction threatens, depression looms, bereavement traps and death comes too soon?
Area X, with its oily sheen and mutated hybrids and fungal memento moris, makes these questions as external as they are internal, and every character answers them in only the way that particular character can. Some of those answers relate directly to the title, but Lena’s raises a more interesting question: Is annihilation the same as change?
Because, in the end, isn’t that the crux of self-destruction? Isn’t it easier to annihilate yourself than it is to change? On a small scale, perhaps it is, when the scenario is either / or. But when Lena encounters that question, writ large and wholly new and terrifying, the solution is more complicated. To annihilate and change is something else entirely. Not everyone can do it.
I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself, but at the very least you know Lena survives Area X from the beginning of the film because a hand-holding framing device tells you so. That — plus a few plot points from the first act that don’t go anywhere later on in the film — are really the only clunky things about Annihilation, but I can see why they’re there. This film is disorienting and deep in ways most modern science-fiction films avoid, and for some viewers a little hand-holding is necessary.
It’s a flaw I’m willing to overlook because the rest of the film is so full and uncompromising in its evaluation of humanity and our weaknesses. It’s not so much that Annihilation is the cynical retort to Arrival’s compassionate optimism, but rather its more realistic mirrored image. Love can save the world, but it can also have devastating consequences if you let it.
I’m all for a movie unafraid to let its heroine make an imperfect choice for imperfect reasons, leaving us to puzzle out while the credits roll the choice we might make in her place. In that sense, Annihilation is just like Area X: It allows me to know myself better through experiencing it. And if the truth is uncomfortable, if what is inside me is not what I want it to be, then I have a choice.
Annihilate or die.