Destruction is a part of life. In fact, life thrives off destruction. Dead plants and animals create compost that fertilizes the earth, and forest fires help clear away dead trees to make way for new growth. Our world is constantly recycling itself to survive and our own bodies are no exception.
The cells inside us are essentially devouring themselves, slicing their complex molecules to pieces and recycling them for new parts. This is the paradox at the center of Director Alex Garland’s newest film Annihilation—that something destructive and tragic can also be something incredibly beautiful.
Based off the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation follows a team of five women—a soldier biologist (Natalie Portman), psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), physicist (Tessa Thompson) and geologist (Tuva Novotny)—on their journey into “The Shimmer,” a translucent fog that threatens to spread across coastal North America in a matter of months.
Lena, played by Portman, volunteers for the expedition after her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is hospitalized following his unexpected return from a year-long deployment in The Shimmer. As Lena and the other scientists venture deeper south into the heart of The Shimmer, they begin to understand why no one has ever before made it out alive.
Garland is no stranger to pushing boundaries in the film industry, but the director was unique in his creation of this particular sci-fi thriller. Annihilation’s cinematography is breath-taking. The vibrant colors of the flowers and mossy, rainbow, tumor-like bulges encompassing trees and abandoned buildings is nothing short of majestic.
But Cinematographer Rob Hardy truly hypnotizes audiences with his motifs of light beams used not only during the daytime, with sunlight breaking through the forest trees, but also in the evening, with moonlight and illuminated lamps that either refract off the shoulders and eyes of the scientists or leave them in silhouettes. The colors and light can almost be seen as an intentional distraction from the true horror that lurks behind the scenes, like alligators with shark teeth that jerk viewers out of a dream-like state and into a harsher reality within the film.
With a heavy emphasis on scientific concepts like cellular destruction, and medical parallels between the alienesque environmental growths caused by The Shimmer and the tumor growths in cancer patients, Garland has created both a biological and psychological playground in this film.
Embedded into Annihilation is the idea that self-destruction is a part of every living thing’s DNA and is also deeply rooted in the human mind. The scientists’ journey through The Shimmer, it turns out, is one massive iconography for human beings confronting their own self-destruction.
Garland has put an extraordinary effort into making this self-annihilation terrifying and equally attractive, adding a haunting soundtrack accompanied by tranquil scenes of glass trees on beaches, not to mention skeletons caught in multi-colored parasitic growths that are so striking they could be mistaken for exotic plants.
Where there is death and fear, there is also life and beauty. The whole experience is entrancing and mysterious, just as the concept of life and death tend to be. At the end of the film, viewers are left without exact answers, but plenty of ideas. You feel a lot like Lena at the story’s conclusion, in a bit of a daze from a constant influx of questions, but wiser all the same.
When she is being questioned, Lena’s debriefer asks of her experience in The Shimmer, “Wasn’t it terrifying?” Lena replies, “Sometimes. But other times it was incredibly beautiful.”