To understand the alien entity in Annihilation, a sci-fi horror film written and directed by Ex Machina's Alex Garland, you have to understand intersections of math and biology. The film, which follows five female scientists searching for a lighthouse, begins with a meteor crash, and from that event a new world called The Shimmer, or Area X, is born. The lighthouse just happens to be at the center of it all.
Biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) reaches the lighthouse in the film's final act, expecting to find an explanation for the death of almost all her teammates. There's almost no dialogue once she opens the door, and everything we learn about the alien entity controlling Area X is communicated through droning, repetitive sounds and a series of bizarre visuals.
Later, when a supervising scientist (Benedict Wong) asks Lena what the alien wanted from her, she answers, "I'm not sure it wanted anything." She explains that the entity she met in the lighthouse was simply playing with the make-up of life on Earth "to create something new."
Once Lena's final fellow team member dies, she's confronted by a swirling vortex of light. That shape, according to Annihilation's visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst, is "the purest form of the entity we ever get to see." Lena stares into it, mesmerized by its hallucinatory movement, and when it extracts a single drop of her blood, she doesn't even seem to notice.
Annihilation is a heady, visual film that relies heavily on connecting its characters—and viewers—to an intelligent extraterrestrial life form without desires without using words. Sometimes, the alien doesn't even have a tangible shape.
"We wanted to create something that had a natural quality to it, though it also had to look a little metallic," Whitehurst explained to Newsweek. "Organic, but also mathematically generated."
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After a lot of exploration, Whitehurst and his effects team decided to use a single geometric shape in order to signify the entity's make-up. They relied specifically on mandelbulbs, a three-dimensional fractal, and once you recognize, Whitehurst, explained, you'll see it all over Annhilataion. It's peppered across every growth and tumor, and even lodged into the backside of the meteor that began it all.
"The shape Natalie looks into isn't technically a full mandelbulb because it has that cavity at the front, but we wanted her to have something to get lost in," Whitehurst said. "We tried a few different surface textures on that thing—gaseous, liquid, metallic—and we ultimately decided to make it mostly metallic, but with something glowing at the aperture, something that looked impossibly hot. It needed to have a solidity to it, but keep the threat of it suddenly changing shape."
One of the most visceral moments in the film is when the entity, in possession of Lena's blood, begins manifesting a humanoid shape. The disturbing image snaps Lena back to reality, and when she tries to escape it, running back through the natural corridor she took to arrive at the entity's core, she discovers that the humanoid has beaten her to the lighthouse's interior. It turns to her, staring at her without a face.
If there's something familiar about the figure, though, it's because the character is played by ballerina and actress Sonoya Mizuno, who also appeared in Ex Machina, as the robot Kyoko. But Mizuno being cast in Annhilation is more than just a deep reference for Garland fans. "We chose a dancer for that role because it was important that the confrontation didn't feel like a punch-up in a lighthouse," Whitehurst explained. The sequence that unfolds between Lena and her alien double (Mizuno) is choreographed by Bobbi Jene Smith, a dancer and collaborator of Oscar Isaac's from Juilliard. Isaac, who also appeared in Ex Machina as the megalomaniacal tech bro Nathan, is becoming a sort of muse for Garland—he shows up in Annihilation as Lena's husband, Kane.
Under Garland and Whitehurst's supervision, Annihilation's alien confrontation scene feels unique. Lena moves, and her double moves too. Lena strikes the creature, and it strikes back harder. When Lena tries to run out the lighthouse entrance, the figure beats her to the door, pressing her against it with enough force to make her gasp for air. For one frightening second, the only image onscreen is Lena's terrified eye as she's slowly crushed by the entity, who seems to have little regard for the human it's hurting. "The entity isn't really trying to kill her," Whitehurst explained. "It's trying to understand her. Mimicry occurs in nature that way."
This is the central argument of Annihilation: just because something happens naturally doesn't mean it's not terrifying. Confronted with what's essentially a sentient tumor trying to learn about her through mimicry, Lena sets the thing on fire.
"We wanted to make the flame imagery more dynamic than just digital effects," Whitehurst said. "So our costume designer made this suit for Mizuno with LED panels attached to it. She was worried because the thing was so cumbersome to move in, but after we saw the final scene, we realized it had all come together. The double looks like it's struggling to get across the room when it's on fire, which makes sense, but it looks that way because Mizuno herself was staggering in the suit."
It's no coincidence that Annihilation uses ballet in its crescendo; the film is classically beautiful from top to bottom, never sacrificing logic for the sake of a jump scare. Every malignant shape is pastel and glittering, and even its goriest images—a girl giving herself over to parasitic plant life, a bear demon with the voice of a friend—feel gracefully rendered.
"We were conscious of the balance between beauty and dread from the beginning of pre-production," Whitehurst explained. "One of the first things the crew did, everyone from effects to sound to the art department, was conduct a deep dive on the internet for images and concepts to inspire us. It was a lot of biological imagery, from the way mold grows to images of deep space, lichens, and fractals."
"You start to see a commonality across images of life, and then you twist it just a bit to find horror."
Annihilation is in theaters now.
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