Tuesday, September 26, 2023

J.G. Ballard's Stalker

Film: Annihilation
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on Fire!

These days, if I watch a newer horror movie, I tend to post a review of it. This is more or less self-defense; you never know when one of those movies might appear on a list that I am pursuing. I didn’t do that the first time I watched Annihilation, which is why I watched it again today. In this case, I’m not really upset by this. Annihilation is a movie that really needs to be watched at least twice to fully grok, and even with that I’m not sure I’m all the way there.

I think that this is intentional. This is not a movie that makes a lot of sense from front to back, but that’s because it is much more a movie about feel than it is about an actual plot and story. It feels alien and unknowable because it doesn’t want to be explained. It wants to be experienced and felt deep in the bones with half-sensed truths and glimpses of things out of the corner of the eye.

Johns Hopkins biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) is interrogated. She is the lone survivor of a group of women who have entered an area known as “The Shimmer,” created by the impact of a meteor near the lighthouse of a wildlife refuge in Florida. Since the impact three years ago—something that has been covered up by the government as much as possible, the area has expanded slowly, threatening to eventually engulf the entire planet. No expeditions into the Shimmer have been successful and no real data has been recovered from it.

However, before Lena’s arrival to the area of the Shimmer, her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) emerged from the Shimmer after as much as a year inside. He soon collapses, which leads Lena to want to find some answers. She joins the next expedition into the area. This expedition is led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist. Also entering the Shimmer are geomorphologist Cass (Tuva Novotny), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), and physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson).

What they find in the Shimmer are mutated plants and animals, with mutations that become more and more pronounced as they move further in and closer to the epicenter. While some of these encounters—faerie-like deer, plants that have grown into human shapes covered in flowers—others are terrifying and dangerous (the bear creature is one for the ages). Josie theorizes that the Shimmer acts as something like a prism that distorts everything inside its boundary. It reflects things that it encounters and changes them like light going through a prism. She additionally theorizes that the plants in human shape will have some traces of human DNA, allowing them to take that shape. And, naturally, the DNA of the people in the Shimmer will be affected as well.

As they go deeper and time distorts, the members of the expedition meet various ends, either succumbing to the mutated wildlife or to the terrible reality of the world inside the Shimmer. And through all of this, Lena looks for any clues that might explain what has happened to Kane.

There are a lot of obvious parallels here to other works. The first is that Annihilation bears a great deal of resemblance to a film like Stalker, with a land that has been changed in unknown and perhaps unknowable ways, created evidently by some form of extraterrestrial contact. There are also great similarities to things like Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space, again with something from beyond this world changing the world around it, spreading out and seeping into the DNA of the people, plants, and animals that come into contact with it. It would be surprising if Lovecraft didn’t influence the author of the original novel and it would be equally surprising if Tarkovsky’s film didn’t influence Alex Garland. Similarly, there feel like surreal elements and aspects of disconnection like the works of J.G. Ballard. There is very much a sense of a desire for self-destruction that permeates a lot of Ballard’s work and feels at home here as well.

Annihilation, I don’t think, is a movie that is really enjoyed in the traditional way. It is one that is experienced more than anything else. It has a dream-like quality, a sort of drifting, that is both terrifying and fascinating. There is a sense of wanting to know where things are going to go while at the same time realizing that where we are headed is nowhere safe and almost certainly destructive.

I spend still a good amount of effort on Oscar movies on this blog, so it’s worth saying that it’s a shame horror and science fiction are so little regarded by the Academy. Leaving off things like director and acting performances (all of which are good to great here), why is this not recognized in categories like set design? While it might not have beaten Black Panther, it surely deserved to be on the stage more than Roma or The Favourite.

Don’t go into Annihilation thinking that you will be able to express what it is in words. Go into it thinking that you’ll be able only to sense in yourself what it is and what it means.

Why to watch Annihilation: A fascinating and terrifying world.
Why not to watch: It’s nearly impossible to accurately explain.


  1. I like this film a lot as Stalker is definitely the obvious influence in that film while I really enjoyed what Natalie Portman did with Tessa Thompson being able to stand out in the film.

    1. I agree that Stalker is an obvious influence, but don't sleep on Lovecraft and Ballard. The weirdness definitely has shades of Lovecraft, and the urge toward self-destruction is pure Ballard.