I never really thought about it, but mold can be pretty. It’s also gross and terrifying. This movie has a lot of weird mold in it, along with a lot of mutation. It’s also a great look at the ultimate bad place, a place where biology doesn’t work properly, and cell growth is twisted. It reminds me of works like the novel Roadside Picnic, which formed the basis of the movie Stalker as well as the Ukrainian S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video game trilogy. In these stories, some kind of force has transformed an area into something not fit for what we consider reality. I appreciate this because I am presented with worlds that could not possibly exist, something that is purely imagination subverting known science in ways that laws cannot or should not break. The reasons for these changes vary depending on the title, though in both Roadside Picnic and Annihilation, the cause is purely alien to humanity.
Annihilation is a film about Lena, a cellular biologist, university professor, and former soldier. Her special forces husband, Kane, has been missing for a year; she paints the bedroom, and suddenly he arrives. He enters into massive organ failure, and on the way to the hospital, they are captured by a secretive military organization and knocked unconscious. When Lena wakes, she discovers that Kane has been in the Shimmer, a small but expanding area that baffles scientists and has resulted in the evacuation of some small towns and the loss of several military patrols. Kane’s the only thing to ever come out, so Lena joins a team of female scientists going in to seek the lighthouse at the center of the Shimmer and find out what happened to her husband.
Why would anyone enter into what is a suicide mission? Well, part of the plot centers around Lena’s guilt over an affair and knowing that Kane knew and had chosen the same suicide mission. She’s not the only member of the team; everyone has baggage. It features into the central theme of the human being’s intentional self-destruction. That other theme? Mutants are fucking freaky.
Take, for example, the albino alligator. After the team first goes in, they’re beset by this big critter; it’s big, it’s white, and it’s got teeth like a shark. There’s a bear later with a fleshless skull face that roars in the voice of a screaming human and can tear your face off with its freaky exposed teeth. Some plants grow in the shapes of humans, in a beautiful effect that somehow reminds me of the shadow people of Hiroshima. Since everything in the Shimmer mutates, that means the team also begins to mutate, though they don’t realize it at first. Their first evidence is memory loss, then bruising, and then a video showing a dying soldier’s insides moving like eels. When they find the corpse, it has grown into a strange moldy flower, complete with torn-apart features. The mutation is both amazing and hideous.
One minor aspect of the mutation that I appreciate is the 8 tattoo that starts on paramedic Anya’s arm and later appears on Lena’s arm. I noticed it part way through, and in a movie where the details of the mutating world are so important, it’s a minor gift to see something that small make the jump. It’s also delightfully creepy knowing that such a thing we consider permanent could jump…but then, this is a movie where fingerprints crawl around and rearrange themselves. Footage of Kane shows he’s adapted to take a different soldier’s voice. Aspects of the Shimmer reflect aspects of Lena’s life, so it’s possible that the world is creating things from the memories of those who enter it while also reshaping their bodies with each other. It’s an incredible visual treat…mostly.
Unfortunately, something that provides such an intensely bizarre world is likely to collapse once you reach the source, and that is where Annihilation gets weird. I’m assuming the big encounter in the lighthouse is something that is properly unfilmable, because what we ended up with was something that looked awkwardly computer generated after all the beautiful and nightmare-inducing monstrosities we’d seen previously. It failed to hold onto my suspension of disbelief, and while the final ‘battle’ with the alien being brings home the self-destructive metaphor, it felt lacking as a legitimately threatening force and felt more like a bad computer generated art dummy.
Still, I can’t get around that I enjoyed the movie and the world it showed to me. It really is beautiful at times, and it’s amazing what was done. Natalie Portman’s role as Lena is understated, but I found that actually enabled the world to shine more as she became a proxy for me to explore that which I cannot.