Humans are strange creatures. You tell someone that little ashy sticks in their hands will kill them, and many will shrug before dragging another puff; you mention to others that our actions are destroying the global climate, and they will turn red in the face before denying that the temperatures are rising around them; and if you request from yet more to make a straightforward science fiction thriller, they shall return with a foreboding, unique, and wholly challenging experience unlike anything most audiences could rationally expect. Thank goodness for the last kind of folk, and thank goodness for Annihilation too.
Alex Garland has made a perceptive and sometimes ponderous tome for his second writing and directing feature after the masterful Ex Machina. Like that film, and several of the other screenplays he’s penned, the filmmaker borrows familiar genre conceits to craft something provocatively counterintuitive and richer than many of its conceptual influences. Also more ambitious and epic in scope than Machina, Annihilation features a strong and wide ranging cast of curious and enigmatic women, including a tenacious Natalie Portman, trapped in an even more imposing mystery box.
Set in the midst of an ecological (or spiritual) disaster of potentially global significance, its wider allusions to a blue globe in crisis due to unstoppable environmental damage isn’t exactly concealed, but the movie is also much more mercurial than its most obvious allegories; it is an introspective and sometime vaguely kaleidoscopic character study about Portman’s heroine, and by extension the self-destructive impulses of all people. Wrapped in a thriller package, these ambitions can sometimes compete and wobble, especially at the expense of its supporting cast, yet still the end result is something to be treasured: a genre movie that will provoke discussion and debate for a long time to come.
Positioned next to a rainbow-colored and glowing shimmer of hallucinatory quality, Annihilation is on its surface about a giant and inexplicable bubble (or “Shimmer”) that is growing larger every day, and which has already swallowed an entire swampland whole. The government is keeping its existence secret, for now, but soon it could be everywhere. For years military expeditions have been mounted into the Shimmer, and for years no one came back.
Until Oscar Isaac’s Kane did. As the lone survivor of a team that vanished 12 months ago, his reemergence shocks everyone, including his wife Lena (Portman), for whom he unexpectedly materializes in their home after she’s long grieved his presumed death. But he is not quite all there, and seems to be getting sicker by the moment. So in an effort to understand what ails him, as well as to perhaps quell her own intense scientific curiosity—Lena is a biologist who also used to serve in the military as a doctor—she volunteers to be part of the first all-scientist, and all-woman, expedition into the Shimmer. She is joining a team carefully curated by a grim and underplayed Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), but nothing can prepare them for the genetic melting pot inside the Shimmer’s luminous walls.
The allure of Annihilation is obviously what Garland has hidden away for the characters and audiences who are drawn into the unknown. Providing a computer-generated, constantly color-corrected, and endlessly tinkered exterior, the confines of the Shimmer are a splash page of images that reflect real Southeastern landscapes with a candy colored twist. In the distance, the skyline is always a shifting array of refracted light, but inside all of the animals and vegetation that the characters study have been subtly or severely mutated by the Shimmer’s influence. This can mean deer have cherry blossoms growing from their antlers, and a single flower can turn into a polychromatic oil painting as it grows like moss on walls. And yes, this weird melding of species applies to the predators who stalk the lands too.
It’s a disturbing hook, but the reason the movie is able to sink its teeth into viewers is that while the Shimmer proves to be a generally confounding mystery, with airs of Kubrickian perplexity buried in its center, the movie has a much more fascinating and tangible question mark at its core: why would someone want to walk into this? Ostensibly, Lena is on a mission to save her husband and has the inquiring mind of a biologist who has been gifted with the greatest observation survey imaginable. However, the film takes this setup, and its vague similarities to other pulpy sci-fi adventures from the 1970s and ’80s that begin with a delicious hook, and uses it to dive into a subject far more graceful and nuanced. Lena is driven by something more unrelenting than just curiosity, and that combined with the genre elements and an uncompromising finale causes this film to glow as bright as any CG razzle dazzle.
This is also what makes it such a good role for Portman. A lifelong talent who benefits from characters who are constantly reevaluating themselves and who they view themselves to be, Lena’s no-nonsense determination yet conflicted interiors (especially as glimpsed in flashbacks to hers and Kane’s marriage) allow Portman to craft a three-dimensional and oh, so human protagonist in a world that is literally shredding humanity apart at a cellular level. Unfortunately, the film’s mostly female supporting cast does not benefit nearly so much from Garland’s script, which is adapted from a Jeff VanderMeer novel of the same name.
Largely cut from archetypes, Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny manage to create mostly intriguing folks from what they are given, but when the film’s protagonist, and even her briefly glimpsed marriage, are so well drawn, the reliance on shorthand and sometimes cliché amongst the other women lacks the feminist potency the material seems to strive for. Leigh’s head honcho is meant to be cynical, but is sometimes written like a school teacher who has long given up on her students and is counting down the minutes until the bell rings. And while the Shimmer is a literal head-game, its effect on some people is reminiscent of the unfortunate character choices in Garland’s earliest screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine.
Isaac, a clear Garland favorite after getting the showiest role in Ex Machina, returns for a small but pivotal part in Annihilation, which should seem ominous to anyone who can reference other sci-fi stories in which a “Kane” inexplicably recovers.
Annihilation is not a perfect film, and its few stumbles along with a dazzling and intentionally difficult third act may prove too high a point of entry for some audiences. But for everyone else, there is a beauty and melancholy to the shimmering sci-fi art installation created here. It can be genuinely horrifying—complete with several truly terrifying scenes that mix body horror with existential dread—but it can also be wondrous and beckoning. And as it is unlike any other invitation you’re likely to get to a cinema this year, it is well-worth accepting on its own terms.