In the opening moments of Annihilation, a small meteor punctures the earth's atmosphere and lands on the East Coast, where alien DNA starts to sprout and spread.
Scientists who observe the creepy, crawly zone of encroaching new life call it…
Well that doesn't sound so bad.
Like a Yanni instrumental album or a pontoon boat that specializes in back bay sunset booze cruises.
In practice, though, The Shimmer is a threat to mankind. Military men go in, and don't come back. Nobody knows what happens when they're in there, but it's certainly not good. All that observers really know is that The Shimmer is growing, unstoppable and foreboding.
What sort of threat are we dealing with? Simply assault by chromosome, or is there an intelligence behind it?
The intelligence behind Annihilation is Alex Garland, who as a writer and director has made some of the most thoughtful and engaging sci-fi of recent years – 28 Days Later…, Sunshine, Ex Machina. Also some of the most depressing – Never Let Me Go, a distressingly realistic story about the technology of cloning being used for the benefit of an entitled and wealthy elite.
Garland, adapting (and substantially altering) a popular book by Jeff VanderMeer, makes Annihilation perhaps his most downbeat story yet — although if you buy a ticket for a movie called Annihilation, you're really not in a position to complain. It stars Natalie Portman as Lena, a cancer researcher mourning the loss of her husband (Oscar Isaac) who was among the soldiers who disappeared in the first expedition.
She decides to join other scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson) in a second expedition, and the movie follows them into The Shimmer, where the movie quickens and brightens, literally. It's a verdant, buzzing place, alive with new life, growing vigorously, with fantastical and colorful new species — a blend of the exotic and the toxic.
There is some unpleasant fauna, also, leading to some action beats, and some tribulations. The women soon find themselves facing — we presume — the same life-threatening tests of the men who preceded them.
Garland's alien biodome is a trippy mixture of tactile old school hardware and computer-generated images. It combines to give his brightly ominous new world a sinister sheen, especially when showing how it has consumed/subsumed the old seaside community it has displaced.
And the movie has a novel spin on alien invasion: Lena first grasps the threat when she views it under a microscope, mutating and metastasizing — she is seen reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — but also merging, making alien a matter of degree.
Other notions are more familiar — The Shimmer has more than a glimmer of The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Thing from Another World, and a few other sci-fi classics.
Also referenced: the book of Genesis, which gives shape and shading to Garland's final images, consistent with his favorite theme.
As a species, we are our own worst enemy.