In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the raving-mad Ophelia says, “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be”—what we may become, that is. That fearful potential for metamorphosis is the center of Annihilation, writer/director Alex Garland’s follow-up to the brilliant Ex Machina. It’s based on Jeff VanderMeer’s trilogy of novels. While it’s better to crunch three volumes into one movie than to divide a book into three movies, a la The Hobbit, some material gets brushed upon—particularly elements about the marriage of the grieving heroine, a cellular biology professor named Lena (Natalie Portman). We first see Lena in quarantine: The only survivor of a doomed squad of all-female first-responders.
A dreadful anomaly has occurred in a remote coastal wetland. It’s nicknamed “The Shimmer,” a filmy permeable dome, swimming with iridescent colors like a splash of gasoline on wet pavement. Those who go inside never return. The head of the project studying it is a numb psychiatrist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who has a theory of what’s occurring—either something kills the intruders within, or something drives them mad so that they kill each other. And the strange area is starting to spread, and grow.
Alex Garland, who can be one of the smartest directors making speculative fiction films today, fills his screen with terrible beauty. On the walls of abandoned dwellings, multi-colored lichens spread as thick as the impasto on a painting by the artist Jess. Bosch-like chimera spring upon and devour members of the team, and the mystery’s definition takes place on a Dali beach of baleful skies and crystal trees.
Annihilation seems to be about cancer as a science-fiction metaphor. Patients are told to visualize the disease as part of the process of “kicking cancer’s ass,” as they say. And what ass would that be? The terrifying part of the disease’s rampage is that it’s nothing personal.