Annihilation ★★★★½

Albert Markovski: “The interconnection thing is definitely for real.”
Tommy Corn: “But it’s also nothing special.”
Albert Markovski: “Yeah, because it grows from the manure of human troubles.”
— “I Heart Huckabees”

In light of a catastrophe large enough to refract our entire lives through its prism, even the most innocuous things have a funny way of seeming newly relevant or illuminating — every piece of pop culture is suddenly revealed to be a nostalgic reminder of what we’ve lost or a prescient roadmap of how we got here. From movies like “Contagion” to novels like Ling Ma’s “Severance” and even video games like “Death Stranding,” the last few years alone have equipped us with a diverse and eccentric curriculum for making sense of our current moment. But Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” is one of the few recent films that actually points the way forward.

Of course, it also offers an uncanny view of the here and now, in its own Tarkovsky-inflected way. Adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, “Annihilation” begins with a meteor screaming into Earth’s atmosphere and crashing into a lighthouse along the shore beyond some Florida swampland; a diaphanous alien dome starts growing out of the crater, slowly encroaching upon human life as it expands. When cellular biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) is reunited with her missing husband (Oscar Isaac) more than a year after his disappearance, she’s told that Kane is the only soldier known to have survived a trip into the top secret “Area X.” Spurred by morbid curiosity, wracked by guilt over an extra-marital affair that may have pushed Kane away, and seduced by an almost Platonic desire to merge with her pain (or die trying), Lena joins four equally self-destructive women on a suicide mission into the unknown.

When “Annihilation” was released in February 2018, “The Shimmer” felt like some kind of metaphorical fugue state — equal parts “Stalker” and Lovecraft. Watching the film today, it’s impossible not to engage with it on more literal terms; the Shimmer now seems less like an imagined space than it does a soap-bubble snow globe of the world as we know it. It’s a place where time is confused, and the days melt together or evaporate (“all other lives feel like a lifetime ago”). It’s a place where everyone is forced to confront their own private agonies even as they begin to pull apart at the seams.

The most basic and persistent irony of the COVID-19 crisis is that billions of people around the world have isolated themselves in response to a deadly reminder that “we’re all in this together.” Which — of course — we are, whether we choose to accept it or not. And yet, even our most extraordinary human principles have a strange way of seeming downright horrific whenever an Earth-stopping pandemic forces us to look at them through a microscope.

As a philosophical axiom or an ecological directive, a “we are one” ethos compels us to empathize with others, and to safeguard our planet for its future stewards; as a biological imperative, however, it really just means that we’re all stuck in the same fucking petri dish. Blurring the soft boundaries between where you end and I begin is all well and good until Gwyneth Paltrow eats the wrong pig and the whole world has to shelter in place. Even as essential workers continue to hold us together, the pandemic has cast an ominous spotlight on our natural porousness, and not even the most solipsistic of people can step outside their home without being confronted by the truth that everything is a part of everything else.


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