God in the cell

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Annihilation (M). Director: Alex Garland. Starring: Natalie Portman, Benedict Wong, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, David Gyasi. 115 minutes

Natalie Portman in AnnihilationThe fact that Annihilation was dumped onto Netflix for most of its global market after having been deemed to be 'too intellectual' for cinema audiences has been a source of considerable angst among science fiction fans. Certainly, to not experience Garland's sci-fi-horror puzzler on a very big screen is a shame. Not least because Garland is such a singularly visual storyteller; his striking imagery is not merely spectacle but rigorously illuminates theme, character and story.

As it turns out, Annihilation is challenging, but hardly inscrutable (after all there is a difference between intellectual and simply intelligent). Yet its relegation to the streaming service at least expedites the possibility of repeat viewings, which the film certainly bears. There are elements that are intractably ambiguous, but the clues as to what's going on flow thick and fast from the opening minutes. Some are more oblique than others, but they gain significance as they accrue.

As the film opens we find biologist Lena (Portman) in a sterile room watched over by men in environmental suits. Their chief, Lomax (Wong), quizzes her about an extended ordeal from which she has recently returned. She has 'lost time', her months' absence seeming to her like days or weeks. She can't recall having eaten for the duration. Some of her colleagues are dead; she does not know what became of the others. 'Then what do you know?' Lomax asks portentously.

There's a rip-roaring visual sequence, a flashback, in which we see a flaming meteorite impregnate the base of a lighthouse, followed by the emergence of a smoky-gelatinous aura. The phenomenon later dubbed the Shimmer will spread and become the focus of intense scientific and military scrutiny. Most of those who breach its borders will never return. It represents an existential threat to humanity, and will have a profound personal impact upon several characters.

First, we see glimpses of Lena's everyday life, at home, and teaching at a university. Her soldier husband, Kane (Isaac), disappeared while on a covert mission a year ago, and Portman imbues Lena with a steeliness that contains heavy threads of grief. Of something else, too: when she declines a colleague's (Gyasi) invitation to a social gathering, he tells her she doesn't need to feel guilty about going to a barbecue; but he also steps closer, grasps her elbow, an intimacy somehow more than friendship.

To a class of medical students, Lena narrates a video of cell division, elucidating the single-cellular origins of 'everything that lives and ... dies'. These particular cells are cancer cells, and this is one of numerous references to cancer in the film; as a disease involving abnormal cell growth, it provides a clue to, or perhaps a shadow of, the nature of the Shimmer. Also to her class, Lena foreshadows discussion of autophagy, the process of cell destruction that paves the way for cell renewal.

 

"Garland is less interested here in questions of good and evil than in exploring transformation and change, the inextricable relationship in nature between destruction and creation."

 

Later, after Kane has suddenly returned to her, psychologically changed and in life-threatening physical health, Lena learns of the existence of the Shimmer, brought up to speed by an enigmatic psychologist, Dr Ventress (Leigh). Believing she can help her husband if she can better understand the phenomenon, Lena volunteers to accompany Ventress on a scientific expedition, which will follow in the footsteps of several ill-fated military excursions, including that in which Kane participated.

Inside the Shimmer, communication with the outside world is cut off, and the members of the expedition party — including geomorphologist Shepherd (Novotny), physicist Tessa (Radek) and medic Anya (Rodriguez) — encounter a series of strange phenomena, ranging from beautiful to macabre to outright horrific. The origin and purpose of the Shimmer is never explained, but its metamorphic effect on living things at a cellular level becomes rapidly apparent.

The film is frequently disquieting and increasingly surreal. It borrows heavily from the body horror of Cronenberg, and existential human-versus-(extra-terrestrial)-nature films like Alien and John Carpenter's The Thing. As the party explores the aftermath of the Shimmer's progress, they face brutal animalistic mutants and discover human remains transformed into baroque formations. The most terrifying question concerns in which ways the Shimmer might be changing their own bodies.

During a flashback to happier times, Lena and Kane debate whether God makes mistakes. Kane, the more romantic of the two, insists he doesn't — 'That's what makes him God.' Lena retorts with reference to the Hayflick limit — the naturally occurring limit on the number of times cells can divide. Never mind cancer; the very fact of ageing, she says, comes down to a flaw in our DNA. It's a telling scene, pointing to a scientifically enlightened humanity at odds with its own physiology.

Is the transformative Shimmer then a good thing or a bad thing? Garland is less interested here in questions of good and evil than in exploring transformation and change, the inextricable relationship in nature between destruction and creation. This is underlined by the tattoo of an ouroboros, that snake-eating-its-tail symbol of continuous destruction and renewal (the mystical equivalent of autophagy?), which mysteriously comes and goes from the forearm of several characters.

These musings apply not just to biology but to the human mind and spirit. One character notes that all members of the party are 'damaged goods'. She might as well simply say 'human'; all carry grief, guilt, secret pain. Another says the ostensible 'suicide mission' of entering the Shimmer is implicitly an act of self-destruction. For Lena in particular there is a sense that this is a process of breaking down her former self, with its throughlines of guilt and regret, in order to be remade; or redeemed.

 

 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Annihilation, Alex Garland, Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac

 

 

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Tim, concise and brilliant. I need Netflix! Mike
Mike Bowden | 20 March 2018


And yet the compensations of calamity are made apparent to the understanding also, after long intervals of time. A fever, a mutilation, a cruel disappointment, a loss of wealth, a loss of friends, seems at the moment unpaid loss, and unpayable. But the sure years reveal the deep remedial force that underlies all facts. The death of a dear friend, wife, brother, lover, which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of a guide or genius; for it commonly operates revolutions in our way of life, terminates an epoch of infancy or of youth which was waiting to be closed, breaks up a wonted occupation, or a household, or style of living, and allows the formation of new ones more friendly to the growth of character. It permits or constrains the formation of new acquaintances, and the reception of new influences that prove of the first importance to the next years; and the man or woman who would have remained a sunny garden-flower, with no room for its roots and too much sunshine for its head, by the falling of the walls and the neglect of the gardener, is made the banian of the forest, yielding shade and fruit to wide neighbourhoods of men. End of Compensation by R.W. Emerson.
AO | 21 March 2018


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