The Female Gaze: Destruction or Creation?: The beautiful ambiguity in sci-fi thriller “Annihilation”

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The Female Gaze: Lindsey Jones
The Female Gaze: Lindsey Jones

On the surface, “Annihilation”’s plot looks like another formula beholden sci-fi thriller, but this film stands apart from other science fiction films. Adapted from the novel written by Jeff VanderMeer, Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”) brought “Annihilation” to mainstream moviegoers.

“Annihilation” stars the incredible women Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh (“The Hateful Eight”), Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”), Tessa Thompson (“Thor: Ragnarok”) and Tuva Novotny (“Borg vs McEnroe”).

The film picks up after an unidentified meteor strikes the coast of Florida, creating a visually remarkable and unexplainable dome around the blast site called the "Shimmer."

After a slew of unsuccessful attempts to reach its core, Lena (Portman) and the military scientists assemble a "suicide squad" to go beyond the colorful wall of the Shimmer and into the unknown.

The film was released domestically in mid-February, making approximately $29+ million at the box-office to date. Interestingly, Paramount decided to distribute the film internationally on Netflix because of its complicated narrative and characters, which were seen as a financial risk. “Annihilation” stands out to me because of its main cast performances and complex storytelling that made Paramount so concerned.

Lena, a veteran and biologist, is not a simple character. Her motivations to go into the Shimmer—to save her husband—seem clear at first, but become more opaque and complicated as her part of her past is revealed. She is not a clear-cut protagonist and neither are her partners in the mission.

Dr. Ventress (Leigh), a chilling psychologist, paramedic Thorensen (Rodriguez), physicist Radek (Thompson) and Sheppard (Novotny) are complicated women whose dark unknown pasts motivate them to enter the Shimmer.

Since the narrative is told in flashbacks from different places and times, the audience’s temporal and spatial footing is just as disorienting as the concept of time while in the Shimmer.

Throughout the film, the characters and audience attempt to understand the Shimmer. Its invisible force mutates everything it surrounds, which leaves Lena, Radek and Thoresen curious and sometimes frightened.

As the team moves further into the Shimmer, the audience is just as confused as the characters when mutated plants and animals bring them new life or sudden death. The film is intelligently suspenseful and maintains its eerie and horrifying moments for when you are not expecting them.

The end of “Annihilation” is unapologetically ambiguous and I left the theater yearning for a second viewing. Its ambiguity made “Annihilation” Alex Garland’s most ambitious film yet, and I hope more people will embrace it for its complexity.  

“Annihilation” is a perfect example of the power of perspective and varying interpretations in a movie. In the film, Ventress believes the Shimmer is destroying everything. Lena on the other hand says “It’s not destroying, it’s making something new.” Is the Shimmer destructive or creating new life? It’s up to your interpretation. “Annihilation” is now playing in theaters everywhere.