Annihilation (2018) Review – Cosmic Horror Cometh

Annihilation is a film that creeps up on you that starts about as normal as you’d expect any other film by any other person to be, and slowly becomes not only weirder, but creepier. A lot of it has to do with the fact you don’t expect this movie to turn into a horror. I mean, how many films have you seen where some ex-millitary person gets recruited to go on some secret government suicide mission and felt like that film was anything other than an excuse for neat action scenes to happen? As I say, instead of that we get a whole lot of creepiness and I was all there for it.

The story is about a woman named Leena (Natalie Portman) who’s presumably dead husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) suddenly arrives back home before the two are taken by the government to some secret facility. There Leena sees and learns about an axpanding alien eco-system growing on Earth called the shimmer. Suspecting her husband’s choice to enter it was driven by her making their marriage unhappy, she volunteers to join the next team entering the Shimmer, led by Doctor Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), in an attempt to figure out what her husband experienced there and if she can help him by knowing.

Like the best horror media, what makes Annihilation work is how it plays into the horror of the unknown. The team enter the Shimmer and then we cut to days ahead where they all wake up in a campsite they made, with no memory of anything that happened after they had initially entered. It kind of sets up this whol unreliable narrator vibe, since we keep getting flash-forwards to Leena after she has escaped it explaining it to people with a very selective memory of events. Sometimes she recalls trauatic things in perfect detail, but other times can’t seem to remember basic things. She seems to remember more as the film goes on and it makes me feel like these scenes weren’t planned out well. They seem quite obligatory, with some existing jus to explain things that weren’t complicated at all that we saw play out moments prior, or to give us concrete insight into characters that we could have picked up on ourselves. These scenes do take away from the experience, but they’re not polarizing.

The writing and the atmosphere carry a lot of the weight here. Lots of science fiction tends to dwell on mumbo-jumbo no one really understands. Don’t you hate it when characters start saying stuff like “the cellular composition of this spece is not mutating in accordance to it’s species biology”, just so the move sounds more future-y? Well this movie does that too, but makes a point of the fact the mumbo-jumbo doesn’t make sense. Things in the Shimmer are defying the laws of nature and so the mumbo-jumbo isn’t there to pretentiously make the film seem smarter than it is, but to demonstrate how alien everything now is. It makes sense since all mumbo-jumbo generally does is alienate anyone trying to rationalise complex parts of sci-fi stories, and here it’s actually being used for that specific purpose. You’re not really supposed to know what’s happening for the majority of the film.

We eventually learn everything in the Shimmer is make up of the same DNA as everything else. Plants share the same DNA as crocodiles, and bears share the same DNA as humans…

Speaking of bears, there is one in this movie and it is absolutely horrifying. At one point the team loses one of their own to a giant bear who then stalks them through an abandoned town. Because it shares the DNA of the person it killed, it uses her voice to incite fear and make the team react to it so it can eat them. It’s a truly terrifying and tense scene. I haven’t been that on edge watching a movie in a long time.

It’s also the first time we see that the team themselves are having their DNA changed or mimicked by the environment. One girl begins to share the DNA of the local plant life and literally becomes one – a plant shaped silhouette of a human. It’s in equal parts pretty as it is horrifying.

Finally Leena makes it to the centre of the Shimmer, which is a lighthouse on a beach. Inside she finds out what happened to her husband. Until now she had clues that he had slowly been going insane, but this is where she finds out his ultimate fate. He died in the Shimmer and an exact replica of him took his place, which is who showed up at her house right at the start of the film. She then has a struggle against one of the spookiest and memorable aliens I can think of. It doesn’t seem to want anything. It doesn’t seem driven to do what it does. Like an animal, it’s just doing what it knows; it copies Leena’s every single move so it can literally become her. Like everything else in the Shimmer, it is copying her but on a more literal level. The audio and framing of the scene is done excellently and the build up to it really sells the tension. In the end of you even feel a bit sorry for the alien after Leena defeats it an escapes as we get a glimpse to see it truly mimic her and be alive in the same way Kane’s copy was at the start. But only for a second.

Killing the alien, who appears to be the thing that the rest of the environment is copying, results in pretty much the whole Shimmer catching fire and slowly dying in a way that is both relieving and also kind of tragic. Because, horrifying as it was, it was also pretty and interesting.

At the end of the movie Leena confronts her husband Kane on a serious level. She knows that the man she’s seeing isn’t her husband, but an alien copy of him that’s new as a baby with little to no idea who he is or what’s going on. The movie ends on a slightly ambiguous note as we see Leena shares some physical properties as her husband’s alien clone.

At the end of it all, I really enjoyed Annihilation. It took it’s time and eased you into the weirder creepy side of itself rather than going all in. But that doesn’t mean the horror isn’t surprising because, when you’re set up for some run of the mill sci-fi drama but get this instead, it is hard to comprehend. There were also one or two details I picked up on my second watch that I missed on my first, so it’s nice to know there are benefits to watching the movie more than once. The casting was also great for the most part, but I just don’t think Jennifer Jason Leigh was right for her role. She’s supposed to be so stoic and distant, but the poor actress just has a naturally friendly voice and nice presence.

Overall, however, I’d still definetly recommend Annihilation. It’s a great sci-fi story that takes its time and isn’t scared to get a little weird on you.

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