I went through a day recently thoroughly discombobulated and disconcerted. I'd had a dream, not the night before but that morning; I'd awoken around 4am for a while, then fallen back asleep for a couple hours, and the dream was as fresh and vivid as a true memory. In it, I had just been describing two really good sci-fi series that I'd read (Lilith's Brood, by Octavia Butler, and Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor) to a Friend and Somebody Else. I woke up trying to remember the second author's name... but then remembered that I'd been talking about those books to distract those people, or as I'd said in my dream, "run interference." Because I'd just encouraged my Husband to fuck our Friend's Wife. And because we were at some kind of house party, I declined their invitation to join but said I should probably make sure they weren't disturbed, nonchalant as you please.
Maybe because I'd had recent (unfounded) fears of infidelity, or because I had actually read those book series and had been intending to recommend them to my Friend, or just because Dreaming, I had a really hard time convincing myself that those things only happened in my unconscious. For days after, I felt... off.
It's not unlike the feeling I have when I think about Annihilation, which I saw two weeks ago and of which I still have quick flashbacks. The movie itself is intercut with flashbacks, and the questioning of perception and orientation and reality. It is science-fiction, but also metaphor. It's horrifying, and scary, and frightening, and unsettling. It's beautiful. It's sad, and resigned, and resilient.
[some spoilers ahead, but I don't really think the plot is the point of this movie]
The plot is essentially that Lena (Natalie Portman) is mourning her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who is dead, or at least MIA, on a military mission. After a year, he arrives unannounced and undeniably odd; he coughs up some blood and suddenly they're both on a secret base on the coast. Lena learns from a psychologist that he's been in The Shimmer, a weird phenomenon gradually expanding from a lighthouse (which we saw in the opening sequence get hit by an asteroid). Lena joins a team (of all scientists! who are women!) heading in to find out why no one else has ever come out in four years of exploring this thing. Very much a one-way ticket, statistically speaking.
As Benjamin Lee states in his review, "It’s hugely refreshing, and remarkably uncommon, to watch a genre film that revolves around intelligent characters reacting intelligently to fantastical events." They take samples, they prod dead bodies, they strategize and actually talk to (not just past) each other. But being that shit gets real weird and all the nature is warped, there are casualties and breakdowns and freak-outs (and long stretches when I did not watch the screen because I believe I have already mentioned how I have vivid dreams and I do NOT need you at the next house party, Mr. Skelobear, thankyouverymuch). Yet, with all that, I can't say this was really a horror film for me, not the way most horror films are these days. It's too pretty and introspective for that.
We just want the team to save each other - save Josie (Tessa Thompson) from that creature in the water, but also from her scars. Save Cass (Tuva Novotny) from her two shades of grief, but also from that Skelobear. Save Anya (Gina Rodriguez, she really is the greatest) from herself and save them all from her and oh that gaddam Skelobear. Save Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) from inscrutability and cancer and the lighthouse and having to know. Save Lena from the same fate but also from knowing all the things and also from herself and also from everyone else. But no one is safe, no one is saved, and the argument here seems to be, you can't be saved from yourself - you just go on, or you don't.
Because the metaphor of The Shimmer is that of a personal lens of distortion - that of experience, love or grief or fear or illness, or, like Angelica Jade Bastién so eloquently writes, specifically of depression and anxiety. The scenes inside The Shimmer are filmed with a sheen of rainbow or vaseline or something, to remind you (if the lush flowers, tie-dyed spores, and crystal trees don't) that you're in an altered reality, but one that is real to those within it.
As Lena is shown being questioned about this expedition early on in the film, we know she is the only one of her team who gets out, but the ultimate question is whether she's the same person coming out as went in. But, how could she be? It seems beside the point to ask if it's really Lena that made it out. She's shown in her own interior flashbacks to contain multitudes, to not be necessarily the person that she wanted to or should have been; and anyway, what intense experience leaves any person the same? The duplications and revisits in those flashbacks mirror and reflect and refract what she learns in The Shimmer, what she does and doesn't tell the outside world about The Shimmer, what she does and doesn't tell the team about her relationships. What we see of her at the end only affirms that everything in life changes us, and we can fight it, analyze it, fear it, or embrace it. But it's coming, and probably from inside us. It doesn't want, it doesn't care, but that means it's not evil or ill-intentioned; it just is. The title of this movie could also have been Metamorphosis if it didn't seem too optimistic.