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Film Review: Annihilation

16 April 2018
Appeared in BioNews 945

Annihilation is the long-awaited second movie by director Alex Garland, which is now available through Netflix. Following a meteor impact in a rural part of the USA, a 'shimmer' starts to grow: a weird barrier to the outside world, which keeps expanding and engulfing everything in its path.

Lena, a molecular biologist played by Natalie Portman, has a husband in the US military, who is the only person to ever return from an excursion into the shimmer. Shortly after his return, he develops a mysterious illness and on the way to the hospital, he and Lena get intercepted by the military. Wanting answers, Lena joins a group of scientists who venture into this strange world.

The deeper the group descends into the shimmer, individual personality traits get amplified which slowly leads to the disintegration of the group. Despite this, the scientists are logical people who still make intelligent decisions in the face of difficult, abnormal circumstances, which is almost refreshing in a horror movie.

The shimmer is a strange place with oddly mutated organisms, but the mutations themselves are neither wholly good nor bad. For example, both beautiful flowers and a terrifying shark-crocodile hybrid result from them. Similar to science itself, there is no judgment in change itself, it can produce both beautiful and terrible results.

As members of the group also begin to experience rapid mutations within themselves, the viewer is forced to confront the question - How much must we change before we are no longer ourselves? Even in daily life, all our cells regularly replace themselves, so if not our physical bodies, then what is it that leads to our constant self?

As a scientist, I was particularly intrigued by the science behind the shimmer. The group theorises that it acts a prism, refracting and intermingling the DNA of all the organisms leading to the mutations observed. But in my eyes, mutations of single organisms may also be a viable explanation. Mutation of the DNA can cause changes of organism, for example it can lead to bacteria developing a resistance to antibiotics. Systems which absorb genetic information also do exist in nature. Bacteria for example have the ability to share some of their DNA with others, which means antibacterial resistance is easily spread to others previously not-resistant bacteria. So which of these processes occur in the shimmer?

Lena observes cells from both the environment and her own blood under her microscope and notices that during division, the cells become mutated (ignoring the fact that red blood cells cannot divide), suggesting that DNA within the cells becomes mutated when it is being duplicated just before division, ensuring that both sister cells get a copy of the DNA.

This suggests that the mutation occurs within the cells themselves. This also gets supported by the fact that the rate of mutations appears to be dependent on the distance from the origin of the shimmer (as if this is causing mutations in a similar way to some kinds of radiation) and not on the availability of foreign DNA. The prism theory may be a nice way of including the physicist into the story line, but it does not seem to follow the underlying science of the shimmer.

Despite excellent observational skills of the scientists, the movie keeps on posing more questions than it actually answers in relation to the underlying science.

This also contributes to the rapid and totally bizarre ending. When Lena finally manages to reach the origin of the shimmer, things quickly spiral out of control. Without spoiling the ending, again more questions are posed than answered, with a suggestion that the shimmer may actually be one organism in itself causing the mutations.

Interestingly, the final solution to the movie is not a scientific one. While I find that slightly disappointing, as I would have liked more questions to be answered, this also stays true to this wonderful movie itself. There is no magic escape for the group, no solution to this problem which suddenly leads to a nice resolution, but rather the shimmer is destroyed in a military manner. With so little being understood about the underlying science, this is also an honest solution. You cannot solve something you do not understand, however a lot less knowledge is needed to totally destroy it.

From a viewer’s perspective, this is a beautifully weird movie which provides a refreshing new approach to horror movies. People do not run into obvious traps and there is very little gruesome violence. The world of the shimmer is very believable and eerie, coming to life through the excellent performance of the actors and their reactions to this strange and yet somehow beautiful place. In addition, the soundtrack excellently underscores both the drama and the unfamiliarity.

As a scientist, this movie had me on the edge of the seat, trying (and failing) to figure out a scientific explanation and predict possible solutions. Asking intriguing questions about the nature of change and how best to deal with the absolute unknown, this movie stayed with me for a long time even after it finished. I very much enjoyed the brain teaser that it was.

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