Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


God in the cell

  • 16 March 2018


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

The 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