Annihilation follows a quintet of scientists into a mysterious zone, call the “The Shimmer,” on an expedition to try to figure out what The Shimmer is and why every team that has gone in ahead of them has vanished. We know The Shimmer originated extra-terrestrially, because the film begins by showing an object come to earth from outer space and strike a lighthouse. But that’s all we know. Everything else is mystery.
The expedition is joined at the last minute by a biologist, Lena (Natalie Portman, brittle) whose husband (Oscar Isaac, disoriented and then comatose) is the only person to have returned from The Shimmer. She discerns, somehow, that he went into The Shimmer because he figured out that she was cheating on him with one of her university colleagues, so she goes into The Shimmer out of a sense of guilt-ridden obligation to save him from the terror she sent him to, probably. Annihilation is loathe to explain much of anything about anyone. Mystery, for the sake of it, frustratingly, shrouds the characters as well. And there are mutated crocodiles and profane bears. Annihilation isn’t very forthcoming, and your enjoyment of it will likely depend on how comfortable you are with its curious combination of dreadful aura and jump scares.
There is an interesting metaphor in the mix here though. The Shimmer changes life that enters it at a cellular level, so once you’ve been exposed to it, you are altered by it. It becomes part of you, and you become part of it. It’s kind of fun to watch other characters’ characteristics become part of other characters. Sadly, this is relegated to physical characteristics in the movie. Personality-sharing seems like a much more verdant field to me. And even the physical characteristics are superficial. My dream of a world full of people with eyes like Tessa Thompson’s remains unrealized.
An aside: Tessa Thompson has Tom Cruise-level screen presence and charisma. She’s a better actor though. In Annihilation, she somehow dials down her natural intensity to play a mousy, wounded physicist, Josie, looking not to challenge the world but to find a nurturing place in it. Annihilation is about the aggressive, defensive Lena. Thompson’s “Josie” is a side character, a qualification to Lena’s way of interacting with the world, but goodness if I wouldn’t rather see the film that focuses on Thompson’s “Josie.” Can we get a redo? That’s a story worth wrestling with.
Back to the main narrative – it’s more interesting to consider the ways traumatic experiences really do change us than it is to think about the “we’re all connected” stuff. One scientist (Tuva Novotny, vulnerable) remarks to Lena that she is there to mourn two losses – her daughter, who died, and the person she was before her daughter died. So Lena is there to… join her husband on the other side of acknowledging her adultery? I guess. Allowing that, it is indeed necessary for a couple, joined as a married couple is, to be at the same place after a loss, especially when the act of… annihilation… is perpetrated intentionally by one half of the couple. Both persons are new people, in a way, and they have to love each other anew.
I admire Annihilation’s admittance that we all tend to destroy good things—call it “sin”—and only in confessing those sins to one another and forgiving one another can we continue together. Confession and forgiveness doesn’t erase the sin, but those acts of contrition can allow us to move on together into a new way of being together. Confession says, “We are changed,” and forgiveness says, “But I will love the new you too, if you will recommit to loving the new me.” That’s very difficult for one person to do, and it takes two. And the offending person has to be able to forgive her or himself as well. I find it miraculous that forgiveness and reconciliation ever occur. Whenever I see it, I count it the surest sign of God’s work in the world, the resurrection and re-creation of all things.