Film Focus: Natalie Portman Ventures Into The Unknown In “Annihilation”

By Creative Media Times

Paramount Pictures

Sometimes movies are only as good as what viewers bring into them. Story-tellers give us the words and actions, and they’re enhanced or diminished by the viewer’s interpretation and point of view.

Such is the case with Annihilation, one of the best sci-fi films released of recent years. It is ambiguous and thought-provoking for being a lot of things, and its lose ends both frustrate and tickle the imagination.

The film opens with Lena (Natalie Portman) in quarantine, being interrogated by a team of doctors about what had happened. She is questioned about the fate of a few characters, to which she replied that some were dead; for the others she mumbled “I don’t know.”

The scene was followed by a meteor crashing on a lighthouse, which produced some sort of an alien zone bounded by a weird energy field (think water color dissolving and floating in the air). The phenomenon apparently happened three years prior and surrounded the Blackwater National Park, and anyone who goes in never comes back. They call it the Shimmer. But what happens inside is unknown.

Enter Kane (Oscar Isaac), Lena’s husband and soldier who mysteriously shows up on her door a year after he ventured into the the Shimmer with an expedition team. But it didn’t take long for Lena to realize that he is no longer the same person, and questioned what had happened during his expedition.

Hoping to find answers, she decides to join an all female team put together by Dr. Venress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist who works at the quarantined zone, to trace back her husband’s footsteps inside the Shimmer.

What transpires after this is both intriguing and terrifying.

Not long after they entered, they begin to lose their memory and get disoriented, their sense of time gets out of whack, their navigation equipment and compass start to fail, they get attacked by mutated alligator, and then, in one of the film’s most intense and horrifying scenes, they get attacked by a mutated bear that echoes the screams of one of its victims.

They realize then that it was in fact a suicide mission, and that Dr. Ventress herself has cancer, which explains her abrasive fearlessness to go to the center of the Shimmer. We also see flashbacks of Lena having an affair, the guilt of which led her to the join the expedition. “I owe him,” she said. It appears everyone on the expedition has a reason to be there and, albeit unwittingly, had a baggage which led some to their demise.

Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer of the same name, the film is full of allegory, subtext and symbolism, from broader topics of biology, cancer, and environmental damage to more personal issues of depression, suicide and extra-marital affairs. At the center, it is about self-destruction, where human impulses lead to bad decisions.

Director Alex Garland expertly weaves these all together in its near 2 hour run-time. And like his highly acclaimed directorial debut “Ex Machina,” the film is thematically and visually ambitious.