Annihilation Valley

Annihilation is not an easy film. Not consumable enough for general audience, but much larger than indie movies. The characters are complicated, but hard to relate to. Approach realistic, but overly simplified. Too fantastic for a sci-fi, too scientific to be a fantasy.

The film struggles to fit into well understood boxes, perhaps one of the reasons why it flopped so much that its European cinema release got cancelled. Yet, despite all of this, I found it to be an excellent film. Or rather, exactly because of this.

Annihilation masterfully exploits the uncanny valley. The term is used when something that’s not a human expresses certain human features, for example appearance or movement, but goes too far in pursuit of realism and ends up no longer stylized, yet not fully life-like. Unpleasant. Uncomfortable. Uncanny.

[Warning: The rest of the article contains spoilers for Annihilation.]

We connect the term with recent efforts to recreate fully realistic digital people – remember mask-like faces in L.A. Noire or not-quite-right Princess Leia from Rogue One? Entertainment industry dreads the uncanny, so who of the sane mind would want to go there intentionally?

Alex Garland, as it seems. Already his Ex Machina explored the line between the man and the machine, and artfully balanced on the edge of the valley. Ava, the main protagonist, may have been an android with exposed mechanical parts, but her face and movements were perfectly real and we believed her.

Annihilation does the opposite, forcing us not to trust it for a second. The story follows Lena (Natalie Portman) and a group of scientists as they investigate mysterious alien zone called Shimmer. Slowly and carefully, the film takes human aspects and puts them in situations which are designed to make us feel uneasy. It does so smartly, starting with well established tropes in order not to overwhelm us, but eventually twisting them to keep us on edge. Let’s take a look at them one by one:

  1. Fauna and Flora – we’re initially introduced to non-human mutations, to warn us something’s not right here. But the changes are subtle and not really unsettling. Different flowers sprouting from the same branch or an alligator with shark teeth. Out of ordinary, although not extraordinary.
  2. Insides – the first effect on humans is shown through a recording made by the previous expedition. We watch a soldier being cut open by his mates to reveal something moving inside him. Gruesome, but still within boundaries of familiar, nothing Alien or The Thing wouldn’t show us before.
  3. Appearance – next we encounter blooming human-shaped trees. The sight is reminiscent of people turned to stone, and is almost beautiful in its tranquility. Some are standing, some are frozen in movement, one pair is lovingly holding hands. All of them look very life-like, if a bit sad.
  4. Voice – while taking shelter in a house for the night, the team is attacked by a bear which previously killed one of their colleagues. However, the bear growls with her voice, turning the scene in very frightening experience. While the statues were shaped like humans, they were abstract; this goes further by copying specific individual.
  5. Personality – for the finale, the film completes the circle and lets Lena confront almost textbook example of uncanny valley. Humanoid, but with everything slightly wrong about it – the height, the skin, the face, the movement. Compared to the bear, this thing is not a horror monster, with teeth or claws or slime. Instead of attacking Lena, it copies her every movement, like a baby copying its parent – or a warrior studying its enemy. It doesn’t radiate threat, only reflects it. Caution is met with caution, aggression with aggression. Fight it and you fight yourself, but ignore it and the things becomes you.

Yet the Shimmer is not hostile, not more than the evolution was hostile to the dinosaurs. Unfair and dangerous perhaps, but without any malicious intent. One would almost want to give it a chance to see how will it transform the planet – if it wasn’t our planet we’re talking of.

We’re told that the Shimmer refracts everything, from electromagnetic waves to DNAs of all living organisms. That’s why trees can look like us and animals can sound like us. Alien infestation in most media works only one-way, with alien life clearly dominating the terrestrial one. The Shimmer is different – it transforms us, but we transform it back. However, without our consent, without our supervision. If you’re afraid of someone misusing your personal data, imaging having your DNA stolen. It’s like the whole humanity was violated.

Such violation is not taken lightly. The film “clicked” with me perfectly, but for many, the bet on uncanny can feel, well, uncanny. Where I sat terrified by the bear’s shrieks or thrilled by the mirror dance at the end, others saw grotesque situations completely missing the mark. As if the whole film got lost in uncanny valley, trying so hard to be original that for many it ended up neither fully innovative nor clearly understandable.

Annihilation is not an easy film. Not easy to watch, not easy to forget.