Review: Evolving the horror genre in Alex Garland’s Annihilation

The following review contains multiple spoilers for Annihilation. If you haven’t watched it already or care about spoilers, be forewarned.

In terms of evolving film genre conventions, Alex Garland is on the forefront and has been for a while. 28 Days Later changed the zombie genre so radically its influence is still felt today (nearly a decade later). Sunshine re-grounded/re-intellectualized the space/sci-fi thriller genre years before Arrival, Interstellar or Gravity made the scene. Ex Machina gave immense weight and depth to an artificial intelligence story whose peers trafficked more in action or schmaltz (films like I, Robot and AI). Garland understands the conventions of the genres he writes/directs for and uses them in a more nuanced and evocative manner. Never is that more true than the use of horror in his latest work, Annihilation.

If you haven’t seen Annihilation – it is a very bold and challenging sci-fi film that may border on inaccessible for many. Like Garland’s previous works it doesn’t bow to the conventions of the genre; it re-contextualizes them into something that sticks with you on a deeper level.

Creatures: Annihilation has two creatures/monsters that interact with the crew of scientists investigating the Shimmer. First is the gigantic alligator. Any one familiar with films like Lake Placid or Primeval knows that the ‘oversized-animal’ convention can easily be scary enough on its own, but within the world of the Shimmer it adds an additional sense of dread/foreboding. After an initial jump-scare (which is executed with great misdirection), the alligator is dispatched during a chaotic sequence that ends with Natalie Portman’s character (Lena) facing it down with steely resolve. In a moment with the immediate physical threat being neutralized, one would assume that the tension would be resolved. In the case of Annihilation, the death of a mega-predator results in an elevated sense of paranoia and fear. Lena notices something strange when staring into the gaping maw charging at her. While doing an informal post-mortem, the crew realizes that this alligator is not only huge, but also contains an extra row of teeth (more similar to a shark’s mouth). This revelation instills a great deal more terror an unease in the crew than the attack itself it would seem. Being attacked by an oversized alligator is traumatic, but we can all get our heads around it. Conversely, discovering a species of alligator that shouldn’t exist and ONLY exists in this environment (the environment they too are stuck in) adds an additional layer of subversive horror to the encounter. Even more interesting is that just before this attack, Lena notes how the flowers are blooming in a way out of sync with nature. This revelation should be equally as terrifying, but maybe only a botanist would truly understand it.

“the bear” in Annihilation

Second is the bear. Early on the bear is used in a very traditional manner. Shrouded in darkness, attacking at night, a crew member goes missing amidst her screams for help. It is a harrowing encounter in line with the horror genre (amplified by the crew being unable to call for help). Later, in the abandoned house when Anya has them all tied up she hears Sheppard’s voice calling out from afar and immediately runs out to help her (even though we know she’s already dead). As the bear lumbers into the house, we discover that it too has evolved/mutated as a result of being in the Shimmer. It took in the death-rattle of its latest victim and now, instead of a roar, are blood-curdling screams for help – a very effective lure for its primary prey: humans. The crew dispatches this monster as well, but just like with the alligator, it adds an additional layer of terror afterwards. If this environment, this Shimmer, can alter a bear so it can lure prey with a human sounding voice, what else is it capable of? How can you trust your senses in a hostile, foreign environment when the Shimmer can manipulate those senses and use them against you?

Body Horror: Ah, body horror – a sub-genre of horror that never really broke through to the mainstream because more often that not, people are just too squeamish for it. The most known example is probably The Fly (1986) and while there are more modern examples of it being done well, like RAW, usually it is just put on screen for shock value. With Annihilation, we encounter two instances of body horror that do shock, but also plant a seed of paranoia and fear deep, deep into the back of your brain. First is the ultra-grotesque stomach-cutting scene that the crew sees on the video tape left by the soldiers that came before them. The sight of a knife slicing open an exposed belly to reveal intestines that appear to be writhing and slithering puts you on your heels, no doubt. What makes this moment a huge mind-fuck is the realization from the scientists that it was not an isolated incident. This is a result of simply being inside the Shimmer. As soon as you step foot inside the Shimmer, your body begins changing in ways you can’t register. When the team of scientists realize this and see just how internalized the changes are with this video, the sense of dread and nausea extends well beyond just seeing something horrific because they realize that it is inside them as well and there’s nothing they can do about it.

Tessa Thompson as Josie, the Shimmer begins to change her.

Where the “serpentine intestines” scene shock value is off the charts, the other example of body horror is much more insidious. Josie (portrayed by Tessa Thompson) reveals the effects of the Shimmer on her body to Lena. In a scene that falls more into the creepy/haunting than shocking we see that flora is growing out of her skin. A more subtle use of body horror, but effective nonetheless. Josie’s peaceful acquiescence to the Shimmer’s effects is almost more unnerving than the violent, frenzied confusion of the soldiers. As Josie just walks off and seemingly disappears into oneness with the Shimmer, it instills a sense of worry in the audience. It is one thing to assume the Shimmer mutates the body’s biological composition, but the idea that it can permanently alter/re-wire your patterns of thinking/brain behavior is another level of fear altogether. Also, skin stuff is just super fucking gross in general.

This is just the tip of the iceberg with Annihilation, but it is evident that Garland’s grasp of traditional horror conventions is beyond a standard Hollywood horror film. He uses these elements a way that simultaneously plays into those conventions while also leveraging them to build up the larger threat: the Shimmer. This subversion makes a standard jump-scare or body horror element feel much, much more psychologically penetrative to the audience.

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