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*Contains mild spoilers*
Natalie Portman delivers one of the best performances of her career in the new sci-fi film, Annihilation. The film offers a subdued thematic repertoire of creation and destruction that leaves one reflecting for days after leaving the theater: it is a cerebral, existential marvel. Difficult to categorize because of its enchanting contradictions, Annihilation is horrifying yet peaceful; contemplative yet violent; meditative yet vigorous.
The fragmented structure of time – the use of flashbacks and flash forwards – challenges the audience from the opening scene: within minutes, the viewer sees Lena (Natalie Portman) being interviewed in a clean room by a man in a hazmat suit. Lena doesn’t have a lot of answers – or the words to explain what she’s been through – but it’s clear that she’s the only one on her team who has made it out alive from what the audience will discover is called The Shimmer – a dimension of sorts where time gets lost, communication with the outside is impossible, geography is convoluted, and human DNA is mutated and refracted into every living form imaginable, producing a psychedelic mashup of species.
The movie is not about what will happen to Portman – whether she lives or dies – but rather a journey to find out what The Shimmer is, and, ultimately, what it says about being human.
Lena is joined by four other women on her pilgrimage into The Shimmer: Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist who has been overseeing The Shimmer and its missions for three years, and three other highly educated and trained women, all of whom are deeply traumatized, haunted, by something – the death of a partner, cancer, the disappearance of a husband. The five face a different form of the same question: why is it that everyone is so hell-bent on self-destruction?
Annihilation, in the tradition of so many great sci-fi films and books, manifests fears into reality. If the choice of destroying oneself was placed into reality, how is it that we would react? When asked in the clean room if The Shimmer communicated with her, Lena says, “It reacted to me.” It is their choice to show their fear. It is their choice, it seems, to live or to die.
The film shows these reactions – how the characters react and how The Shimmer reacts to the characters. It is a mirroring of possibilities acting as a microcosm of life itself. There is incredible beauty in the creatures and fauna that The Shimmer constructs through its mutations, but there is horror there, too, reminiscent of Robin Williams’ lesser known classic, What Dreams May Come: gorgeous fusions of flowers and the melding of monsters that, previously, only existed in the mind.
Weaved within the violence of the film, which is often off camera, is deep contemplation: is linear time the only way to experience time? What does it mean to defend yourself from yourself?
The movie returns, again and again, to the image of one cell splitting into two. Dr. Ventress, at one moment, says to Lena “It’s [The Shimmer] destroying everything.” Lena responds: “It’s not destroying, it’s making something new.”
What Annihilation offers is rare from big-budget Hollywood these days: there is no easy answer to decoding the labyrinth that is The Shimmer. There is no right or wrong, good or bad. Identity is dynamic, complex, and impossible to comprehend completely.