Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes (Turn and Face the Strange)
There are flashbacks within flashbacks in Alex Garland's adaptation of "Annihilation" (the first book of Jeff VanderMeer's "Southern Reach" trilogy), part of a school of speculative fiction dubbed "The New Weird" and is one of those novels considered "unfilmable"—mostly because the book is written as a first-person journal of an expedition and is short on details (names, for instance) to the point where VanderMeer didn't get around to fleshing out the characters, which garnered criticism for the casting due to its lack of specific ethnicity, the clues to which didn't occur until the second book was published.
It's also an experiment in making its readers do the hard work of imagining, the literary equivalent to radio's conceit of a "Theater of the Mind,"* where suggestion sparks completion in that venue, creating a wily co-conspiracy of writer and reader. This has its dangers because "fans" (especially these days) take a personal stake in these things and become vocal (or take to what is ironically called "social" media) if their "vision" is not represented—not that anybody knew what that vision might be. This puts Garland in a touchy situation as it his job to make concrete what has previously been merely "airy-fairy" to the point of being deliberately vague. Every director has to do this to a certain extent, and producers put up the money for the "vision" that will make a return on their investment.** The business dictates that the only "vision" that matters be tinted green.
Not much, evidently. But, we do know that she's the sole survivor. Call her Ishmael.
With the mystery properly whetted, we cut to a comet heading for the Earth from the comet's perspective. VenderMeer never gives a cause for what becomes known as "the Southern Reach," but here it's a comet that strikes an area of beach with a lighthouse on it, it's impact causing no damage...not yet, anyway.
Cut to a cell dividing. In a classroom, Portman's character is talking about the process, but not in clinical terms of interphase stages or chromatin condensation. She's talking philosophically, not telling her class anything they don't already know, making the point that it's a single organism in the Universe, poor thing. Lena has a lot on her mind and she rebuffs an attempt by a comrade (David Gyasi) to attend a get-together. We learn that her husband has been missing for a year with no explanation of why, where, how...nothing.But, that night he (Oscar Isaac) shows up unannounced...and without a word of explanation. She badgers him with questions, but he can only look at her hollow-eyed and be vague about where he's been and what happened to him—he doesn't know. All he knows is he was outside their house and it looked familiar. He takes a drink of water, and begins spasming, coughing up blood. An ambulance is called, but before they can get to the hospital, they are overtaken by a clutch of anonymous vehicles and forced off the road. Lena is knocked out.
She awakes in a spare hospital room and greeted by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) with "You must be feeling dreadful." Yeah, but Ventress is evasive about anything that her husband is stabilized but his organs are shutting down and they don't know why. But, over the next few days, Ventress will open up: her husband, Kane, was part of a mission to investigate "Area X"—they're in a facility outside "X" right now—and he is the only person to have emerged from the evacuated area. Something has happened in "Area X," what, they don't know—Ventress murmurs something about "a religious event, an extraterrestrial event..." what, she doesn't know, exactly—but "Area X" has been around for a few years...and it's growing, having already taken over an earlier compound in the swampy area. She's sent a team in, contact was lost, but only Kane emerged, and Ventress wants to know what's inside what she calls "The Shimmer" and what happened to the other men—were they killed or did they kill each other?
She assembles a team of soldier-scientists: herself—she's a psychologist, Anya Thorenson (Gina Rodriguez) a paramedic, Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) an anthropologist, and Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) a physicist. She needs a biologist and as Lena has a job teaching that at Johns Hopkins, Ventress asks that she join the team. Lena accepts—she wants to know what happened to Kane—but she keeps that information from the other team-members. Ventress, agreeing with the decision, maintains her silence about it.The five enter "The Shimmer" and it is disorienting. Compasses don't work, radio's get scrambled, the flora and fauna are weirdly exotic and not entirely knowable, plus they have a tendency to lose track of time. Nerves are high, but they're able to focus on the routine. At a dilapidated boat-house, Lena is able to take some samples of the exotic vegetation vining around the house, but as she starts to take a closer examination, Josie is pulled into the house and she starts screaming.
Lena and the others run into the house which has been partially submerged in the swamp and are able to get Josie out fast, but, guns drawn, they see a huge albino alligator emerge from the house sink into the swamp and then turn and attack the party. Lena distracts it by firing at it, but the thing lurches towards her and she determinedly fires round after round point blank into the creature before it finally dies. An examination of the creatures mouth shows that it's teeth are more like shark's teeth. The party starts to be a bit freaked out. The Shimmer has somehow mutated the plants and animals inside it, scrambling GPS and radio waves, but also the very DNA of the flora and fauna. If that's so, then what is it doing to them?To talk about it any further will be to rob any brave, potential viewers of one of the very palpable things that makes Annihilation work—its ability to evoke unease. I could mention a couple things and get away with it, but the element of surprise—and the dread of surprise—in such an environment really sets the nerves on edge. The unseen and unknowable is more tension-inducing than the seen and given the icky eerie imaginings in that place which have the "what else could happen" creepiness of the original Alien set in a landscape that is just as enveloping and throbbingly tense as those of Deliverance, Southern Comfort, and Apocalypse Now and you have an exercise in dread that takes you right down to the cellular level.
"And then, people start dying." Maybe, they're the lucky ones. It becomes clear that "The Shimmer" is messing with their DNA, and as nerves and minds becomes strained and the survival odds get lower, the team decide to "bug out"—if they can make it, but their judgment of time and distance doesn't make the job any easier. For Lena, the key to it all is the lighthouse at the center of it, and she's determined to get there. If not to find answers, hopefully, to find a solution...maybe, a cure.
And that's where things get really interesting. Not explicable, perhaps, but very interesting. In fact, more questions are raised than are probably answered, but there is an all-purveying sense that things have changed...irrevocably and there's no "reset" button to go back to pre-"Shimmer" days. You hope for the best in the outcome, but you're never really sure what "best" might be. Once Annihilation "hits the beach" everything is done by suggestion and imagery just specific enough to keep the momentum going, but there's no narration or voice-over to explain what is going on and that may unnerve the already nervous. But, it gives you a definite sense of the "unknowable" while telling its story purely by what you see.
It makes me wonder how audiences will react to something this challenging (but worth it). I tend to see movie audiences being really dumbed-down these days from having been force-fed solutions and explanations, while, at the same time, being capable of handling ambiguity and "woo-woo" concepts that might stagger the imagination. Annihilation says a lot of things about embracing change and adaptation, while also being a thinly-veiled comment on accepting the immutable, like, say, global disaster. While not a complete invitation to blind acceptance, Annihilation will appeal to folks who like their science fiction scrambled rather than over-easy.
* My favorite story of "Theater of the Mind" is when Rod Serling (speaking of speculative fiction) was asked whether he preferred writing for television or radio and he mentioned that if he wrote "there was a castle on the hill" for television it would go to the budget department, then to the production department, to the art department, to the drafters, to the carpenters and set-dressers and painters and finishers and scenic decoration and at the end of it he'd get one castle on one hill. "But if I write 'there was a castle on the hill' in a radio script, it costs nothing and I get a thousand castles on a thousand hills."