Contemporary cinema is dominated by fast cutting and bombastic visual spectacle. Attuned to the fast times of the present, mainstream filmmaking runs at the pace of its audiences. It is a curious phenomenon considering the average blockbuster is actually quite long. Your typical Marvel film will run to about 2 hours and 15 mins. The recent, magnificent Black Panther features a sharp screenplay and visually rich vistas, yet it is engaging as a work of visceral energy. It rushes headlong through its vision and achieves the feat of making two hours feel like fifteen minutes. Alex Garland’s Annihilation arrives with a different approach, preferring to transcend its genre with a tone that is meditative and focused on creating an environment.
In a sense, Garland is attempting to achieve a cinema of transcendence, in which the elements of filmmaking are utilized to evoke rather than tell, reaching for an effect that is almost akin to cinematic reverie. It is no surprise the film has struggled at the box office. Cinema that seeks to create psychological landscapes requires a mood alien to our fast-paced age. It is hard to imagine films like Last Year at Marienbad finding wide box office audiences today. The poetry of Terrence Malick finds itself adrift even amongst specialty theaters, while filmmakers like Nicolas Winding Refn are obsessed with the hypnotic qualities of an imagebut with a coldness that stands apart from the emotional or spiritual. Annihilation approaches its themes as a cathedral of image and sound, even its elements of horror are meant to conjure ideas as opposed to merely being used to disturb. It is unnerving, but in the same way that a nightmare culled from an amalgam of memories and private thoughts can be jarring.
In his seminal book, Transcendental Style in Film, screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) described the essence of this form of filmmaking as “like the mass, [which] transforms experience into a repeatable ritual which can be repeatedly transcended.” Schrader was focusing on the filmmaking style of directors like Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson and Yasajiro Ozu, who used an austere style to find an almost zen-like, meditative state in filming the every day. They could focus their camera on a woman washing the dishes, extending the scene even beyond the time it would take you to carry out such a task in real life, and achieve a kind of mental escape.
Of course transcendence is not always sedative. Dreyer’s own 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is a visceral work of art in which the trial of the French heroine becomes a baroque, Medieval vision of oppression. Dreyer’s camera lingers on the mystical face of actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti, whose eyes are illuminated planets. Devoid of sound, Falconetti appears to perform entirely with her look and expressions, attaining fully the air of a mystic. She always seems to be looking beyond the physical space she inhabits and into some other realm. Pauline Kael once speculated that this was the greatest performance ever captured on film, and Roger Ebert once wrote, “You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renée Jeanne Falconetti.” When the film was remastered in the late 1990s with a new, choral music score, the film was transformed even further into something beyond mere cinema, but into an almost mystical or religious experience. I mean this not in a theological sense but in the sense of cinema that becomes an overwhelming emotional, intellectual and visual environment. You are immersed as opposed to being merely entertained. This brings us now to Garland’s sci-fi opus.
Science fiction is the ideal genre for a cinema that seeks an almost spiritual essence. If its core is based on scientific elements — technology, biology, space travel — it utilizes these elements to explore the grand questions of human existence. The origin of the species, the purpose of our very existence, and the fragility of our biology are present in the fabric of most science fiction, and in particular obsess Garland’s writing in this film. His previous breakthrough, Ex Machina, was itself a meditation on the possibility of artificial intelligence and how it would shape our role as creators. With cinematographer Rob Hardy, Garland captured the cold slickness of robotics and let scenes develop as organic, intellectual debates and exchanges without having to resort to spectacular action sequences (as in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. or Alex Proyas’s I, Robot). The ending spirals into murder with an inevitable ease that makes its effect much more disturbing than in a conventional thriller.
With Annihilation Garland enters a larger terrain via an expansive vision taken from a novel by Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer specializes in a genre known as “weird science,” which is a simpler way of saying it is science fiction that dismisses conventional plotting for a more thoughtful approach. As the film opens, a space object of some kind, possibly a meteorite, crashes into a lighthouse in the coastal United States. Garland frames the moment with a quiet, serene shot. Cut to biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year on an unknown mission. Just when Lena considers him dead, Kane reappears at their doorstep, hazy and quiet. Soon he’s coughing up blood and picked up by government officials who reveal to Lena that Kane had been part of a force entering “The Shimmer,” a zone encapsulated by a pulsating, multi-colored barrier emanating from the lighthouse where the space projectile crashed.
Garland shoots these opening moments with the cryptic, visually haunting air of a Stanley Kubrick film. Lena sits in an observation room while a man in a bio-suit interrogates her. The cinematography by Hardy immediately takes on the tone of a dream, where what is happening is clear yet the details remain shrouded in the corners of the frame. This is a film of layers, with each layer creating a sense of immersion into the world of the story.
Herself former military, Lena is soon recruited to enter the Shimmer with a team of fellow scientists and experts, including Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Once inside The Shimmer the team finds strange mutations in the local wildlife caused by radical cell restructuring and odd, tumor-like material infecting certain areas. As imagined by Garland, The Shimmer is a jungle terrain with reflected light coloring surfaces. There is a translucent glow to this zone yet an eerie, threatening ambiance. The strange materials and fungi the team encounter looks otherworldly, but organic enough to feel familiar and realistic. Transcendental, immersive cinema depends on the creation of entire terrains which feel familiar yet new. The world must be seen through a different eye.
Annihilation is a clear heir to the films of directors like Andrei Tarkovsky, who remains unsurpassed in his evocation of mood and place in Stalker and Solaris. The two films are supreme examples of the transcendental style, in that Tarkovsky uses science fiction settings — a post-apocalyptic valley for one, a space station for the latter — to place the viewer in a moment or environment. In Stalker, characters wander a green yet toxic zone where artifacts from what used to be civilization sit under poisoned waters. In Solaris, the cold, clean rooms of a space station become a psychological battleground for an astronaut’s memories of his dead wife. In these films the plot almost becomes meaningless next to what the film seeks to evoke. The future is a worthy conduit for our fears because we are always in fear of what is to come. Rarely do we honestly ponder the future to be utopian or hopeful, even if that is our sincerest hope. Werner Herzog, however, achieved this effect by going back into the past with Aguirre, The Wrath of God, a film about conquistadors lost in the wilds of Peru. The plot is lost within Herzog’s obsession with the monstrosity of the South American jungles and its raging rivers. The music score by Popol Vuh is otherworldly, with a sound that is ghostly and out of time. Herzog seeks here to make us feel the madness of the Spanish enterprise and the universal tragedy of men lost in a land they refuse to comprehend.
Annihilation, too, becomes a journey into an alien terrain, where the environment becomes the very character of the film. The world of The Shimmer is mutating as cells begin to blend and change, soon the members of Lena’s team feel their own biology changing as well. But unlike a scare-fest in the tradition of Phantoms or even the Alien movies, Garland uses the threatening, biological angle of the story as metaphor, and beautifully so.
When the process of filmmaking produces a collection of images tethered to a soundscape which then produce a definitive idea in the viewer’s mind, then you have achieved a form of transcendental cinema. In Annihilation, Garland uses the theme of cells and biology to form an idea about the way our own lives become erratic and tend to mutate in unexpected ways. The fragility of the human condition becomes embodied by the changing forms inside The Shimmer. There are moments of tension within The Shimmer which then cut to a recurring memory where Lena is having sex with a co-worker. Notice how Garland shoots this scene without sensationalism, instead giving it the tonality of a repressed memory. We see Lena’s back and cut to her face and then her lover’s, both full of hollow, dead expression. As we learn more about Lena and Kane’s marriage and its different layers, Garland’s film becomes the ultimate metaphor for annihilation itself, as cells spontaneously become erratic, or systems begin to devour themselves, like a bad marriage, like a scarred mind. The journey into The Shimmer begins to take on a greater resonance than just the idea of alien entities landing on earth. Each member of the team begins to expose her own fears, personalities and fragile mental states as they attempt to reach the Lighthouse. Why do other films, beautiful and immersive, like Blade Runner, retain their power? Because they speak to our everlasting questions about what makes us human. Garland and his source novel use a fever dream sci-fi concept to explore such questions.
Paul Schrader described the establishment of a shot as a “moral judgement,” in particular when exploring the transcendental style. In Terrence Malick’s World War II film, The Thin Red Line, the vastness and beauty of nature are filmed with a poetic, meditative movement of the lens. This is then contrasted with the bloodshed and extreme violence of war. Yet even when Malick shifts his camera from the beauty of the natural world to the carnage of combat, the camera becomes a dreamlike, tracking eye and the poetry shifts from the majesty of creation to the savagery of conflict. Garland and Hardy use the camera in Annihilation in an interesting way where it never quite moves. There are not as many tracking shots or pans as you would expect in a big budget special effects picture. The purpose here is to focus on the details of a moment. This is unnerving in the film’s moments of horror, when the film shifts from meditative or nightmare.
Hardy’s lighting hides little during the day, and scenes of sudden carnage are jarring in their detail. The effect is more striking because Garland doesn’t over-do it. His technique is to allow the characters to walk, ponder and debate inside The Shimmer, and then shatters the serenity with sudden rushes of nightmarish visuals. A man’s organs seem to move like a snake, a disembodied voice emanates from a half-dead creature, strange mutations change the physiology of crocodiles. It is classic sci-fi, but Garland frames it elegantly and with just enough gore to rattle you, but not too much to where it becomes overkill. He understands the logic of a nightmare in that it is most effective when the image is haunting, but elusive.
From the Annihilation soundtrack, “The Alien,” by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury
Key to a film becoming full immersion is sound. In this film the music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is a weirdly evocative electronic score that can sound like some distorted transmission. The score becomes an undercurrent of tones and eerie voices, similar to Stanley Kubrick’s use of György Ligeti’s otherworldly sounds in 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the great, lasting examples of transcendence through cinema. The music becomes a visceral, whispering pulse in Annihilation, with waves of strings. When Lena reaches a cavern in which the alien entity at the heart of The Shimmer blossoms into some kind of multi-colored, organic portal seeking to bond with her, the music becomes an electronic vibration, creating an environment of near disorientation. The visuals themselves, as the alien takes the form of flowing currents about to birth something new, are not cut in a fast method. Instead Garland allows for the camera to simply stare as the scene builds to a stunning, visual crescendo.
It is almost fitting that the film will then find its closure amid flames. Umberto Eco writes in the essay The Beauty of the Flame, “Fire is ever present as an instrument for every transformation, and fire is called for when something has to be changed.” Thus Garland allows his film to end in a climax in which much is destroyed, yet the viewer, if they have allowed themselves to be carried by the currents of the film, has been devoured in another way: in the full immersive, transcendental style of the movie. It should be noted that there is violence in this film, yet even the use of machine guns becomes nothing more than a footnote in a world so vast and strange that bullets become useless.
There has been much press over Paramount’s hesitancy to properly back Annihilation upon its release. Indeed, the box office figures reveal that mainstream audiences are not fully embracing the film. Maybe it is too much of an oddity, a meditative, unnerving film playing next to the kind of pure escapism audiences seek (especially in these times). But like certain works of poetry or other texts which find themselves hidden like gems in the back of a bookshelf, Annihilation will build its audience with time. Like many transcendental works, it is best discovered outside of the noise and roar of the arcade.
Alci Rengifo is a Contributing Editor at Riot Material and a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Mr. Rengifo frequently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Entertainment Voice, and the East LA monthly Brooklyn & Boyle.