Cinematic Releases: Self-Refraction: Annihilation (2018)

There is a term called "ego death" which is the idea of a person losing their concept of themselves or their self-identity. Each individual has this snapshot of who they are both mentally and physically and if either (or both) of those things are compromised then they disconnect from reality. Everyone changes gradually over time and who you are in the present is transformed into something completely different in the future. Annihilation poses these questions: What if every single part of you is altered at once? Are you still yourself?

The story concerns an anomaly known as the Shimmer which is a mysterious luminescent force field that is spreading out from a lighthouse. Everything located inside the Shimmer is modified in bizarre and often grotesque ways. Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist, is sent inside the Shimmer with a group of scientists to discover what happened to her husband Kane (Oscar Issac), a soldier who returned from inside the area deathly ill.

It takes awhile for the plot to get rolling and the pacing in the first third of the movie feels a bit too fast. There isn't much time to get to know Portman's character though some of her motivations are revealed via flashbacks later in the film. That being said, it's still easy to empathize with her and she is the anchor for the audience when things start to get incredibly weird. Interestingly, the team she travels into the Shimmer with is all female and they are accomplished experts in their various fields of study. This dynamic is a little different than the norm and it was a refreshing change. They are a bit light on the character building as well, but each of them has their own motivations for the journey and their interactions with each other feel genuine.

Annihilation is a high-concept sci-fi film that is built upon the foundation of a horror/thriller. It feels like a combination of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979) and John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) but not in a derivative way. There is a strong element of surrealistic body horror present that was unexpected, but oddly fitting. I commend Alex Garland for sticking to his vision with this film as parts of it are not going to appeal to some people, especially those who need their stories tied up in neat little bows. The film is an allegory for those who travel the road of self-destruction--the people who feel the need to tear down not just everything around them but themselves as well.

Everything about the aesthetic of the film is amazing and the visuals inside the Shimmer are mind-blowing. Since the force field around the zone acts like a prism, it refracts the light coming in giving everything an otherworldly glow. There are rainbows and bright colors everywhere which is an intriguing dichotomy to the scary creatures that roam within. There are beautiful moments as well, and towards the end of the film it dissolves into a psychedelic freak-out that is channeling the art of Alex Grey. Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury collaborated again on the score of the film which flits between quiet strings and loud dissonant analog electronic noises to enhance the mood.

This film is ambitious, messy, moving, horrifying, and often times incomprehensible. Each layer is slowly revealed until it gets to the glowing center and there is nothing you can do but shield your eyes from the light of its revelations.

--Michelle Kisner