In this non-stop tribute to CGI, Natalie Portman plays Lena, a cellular biologist at Johns Hopkins and former soldier, who is married to Kane (Oscar Isaac), a still-serving NCO who from time to time has to go off on a secret mission. Or is she? After the opening wherein a strange meteor hits a lighthouse without damaging it, we cut to Lena and her university work. It becomes rapidly apparent that Kane has been missing for a year, and thinks that Kane is dead. She rebuffs an invitation by her colleague Daniel (David Gyasi) to a party, in order to paint a room. Thus employed, through her flashbacks we are introduced to her seemingly idyllic love life with her husband so that we can understand the depths of pain she is feeling. While lost in reminiscence, she fails to notice Kane’s return.
Kane seems confused; he does not know where he has been or how he got back, He then complains of not feeling well and begins bleeding into his water glass from the mouth. An ambulance is summoned, but as they race to the hospital, a convoy of law enforcement officers of some kind force the ambulance to a halt. Soldiers extract Kane from the vehicle, and when his wife resists, she is forcibly anesthetized. She wakes up at a government facility and is taken in hand by Dr. Ventress (an older and harder – if not wiser – Jennifer Jason Leigh), psychologist and head of the secret operation. The meteor hit the lighthouse three years previously, and generated around itself a sort of rainbowish-translucent bath-curtain-like barrier the scientists call “the Shimmer.” Dr. Ventress has sent a number of armed expeditions into the gradually increasing zone bounded by the Shimmer, but there has been no radio communication, and none of the soldiers have returned – until Kane, who has now slipped into a coma.
Worried about the fate of those she sent in, Dr. Ventress has decided to mount a new expedition – leading it herself. Because men are likely to go crazy and kill each other – which is what is presumed to have happened – this sortie-party will be made up entirely of women: in addition to Ventress, Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), hardboiled soldier and paramedic; worldly-wise and philosophical anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny); and gentle, naïve young physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson). Given that every other expedition has vanished, Lena wonders why any of them – including her husband – would volunteer to go on what is essentially a suicide mission. Ventress reveals that only those with little reason to live would do so – and she herself is dying of cancer. She supposes that Lena herself must already know why Kane volunteered. Lena does – and knows herself to be responsible; she volunteers to join them.
The next day, the intrepid adventuresses enter the Shimmer. Shortly after, they awake, with no memory of having pitched camp, Nor do their radios work. Their plan is to head for the lighthouse, see what caused the Shimmer, and head south on the coast to a checkpoint. Their compasses do not work, the unearthly rainbow is reflected in everything, and as with Tolkien’s Old Forest, the deeper they go in, the stranger things become. It is a weirdly beautiful world they have entered, with flowers apparently of many different species sprouting on a single plant and the buildings of men covered with strange and gorgeous blooms. In one particularly bizarre sequence, they behold a pair of deer-like creatures, flowers growing on their antlers, which move in perfect symmetry with one another as though they had one mind between them.
In another, the team encounters what appear to be groups of floral outlines of people – as though the humans had been entirely replaced with multiple corsages. This last this reviewer imagined is what Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) would have been like had the pod aliens been on hallucinogens. The horrific action element is provided by sights of what happened to previous expeditions and the predations of two very different mutated animals.
What I found far more frightening, however – apart from the casually accepted evil of testosterone and implied normality of lesbianism – was the sheer purposelessness of it all. Not only the alien, who was only “making something new” – and might not be aware of doing anything at all, good or evil – but of life itself, which, as is repeated several times by various characters, has no purpose at all, save to exist. Scarier still was the moral sense of the humans; Lena’s revealed adultery, for example, is neither good nor evil, save that it was ultimately unfulfilling, and inspired Kane to throw his life away.
But this nightmare world in which nothing means anything and the DNA of all earthly life is to be broken down and remixed with itself – the “annihilation” of the title – is precisely the mental universe that the majority of our intelligentsia and dominant classes in the West inhabit; the film is certainly an effective allegory of our prevalent philosophy today. Marriage, gender, and even what constitutes a human being have been and are being broken down and remixed. Constantly we are reminded that this process is not “evil” or “wrong,” but merely “something new.” Nothing is to be fought but docilely accepted.
Living in a State that has decreed by law that there are three genders has made me particularly sensitive on this point. But it is no better or worse than a single Irishman like Mr. Justice Anthony Kennedy, or thirds of them in the Irish Republic should decide they have the power to alter the nature marriage at will.
The great error of our time is the belief that reality is whatever our masters and/or ourselves in emulation of them say it is. This is a shrieking horror that no amount of beautiful CGI-infused scenery can conceal. Still, if things are to continue as they have thus far, perhaps being immersed in DNA enriched flowers is the best outcome!