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Annihilation [Review]

Almost paradoxical in how it functions equally well as a heady examination of the nature of self and as a tense thriller.

There is perhaps no image in science fiction more indelible than that of a team of explorers taking their first steps onto alien terrain. It combines the thrill of exploration with the terror of the unknown, promising adventure, danger, and bizarre sights the likes of which may never have been seen before. Annihilationwriter/director Alex Garland‘s follow-up to his debut film, Ex Machina—contains such an image, with two key qualifiers; the team is made entirely of women, and the alien terrain is on the gulf coast of the United States. Bolstered by these added twists, every pulp thrill promised by the setup is delivered in spades, along with an added dose of cerebral philosophizing that elevates this film from merely thrilling to truly spectacular.

Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a cell biologist whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) disappeared one year ago while on a secretive mission for the military. After he suddenly reappears at their house just long enough to act peculiar before falling ill, Lena is taken to Area X, a secretive government facility where she learns the truth about his mission. Three years ago a meteorite slammed into a lighthouse, which shortly there after became surrounded by The Shimmer, a sort of translucent veil that resembles melting violet glass. Since that time, The Shimmer has grown consistently, consuming miles and miles of coastland, with no signs of stopping nor any explanation for its existence. Drones and teams of soldiers have all gone in, and nothing had come out until Kane appeared back home.

With her husband dying and with the knowledge of The Shimmer weighing on her, Lena lobbies to join the next team headed into the unknown, comprised of four other scientists with varying specialties, all of whom have a reason to agree a possibly one-way trip into the unknown. Addiction, tragedy, cancer… the motivations are as varied as their fields of study, and the crucible of The Shimmer promises to test them all.

The characters are archetypical in their own right, save for Portman’s Lena, who as the protagonist gets the most backstory and the greatest arc. It is a credit to the movie and to the powers of the cast that this feels less like a cheat or failing than it does a choice in the name of focus. That said, given just how wonderful the other performers are, and how intriguing their characters are, their simplicity can feel a little bit like a tempting appetizer for a meal that never gets served.

But as anyone who saw and loved Ex Machina can attest, the story and characters are merely the delivery system for the true draw of an Alex Garland film. This is an artist full of ideas, and with the storytelling panache to make those ideas at once accessible and entertaining while not short-changing their existential importance. He understands that the old cliche of “show, don’t tell” is more than just good storytelling—it’s a blueprint for making the obscure and thought-provoking come to life.

A movie like Annihilation can get a lot of mileage off of nothing but mystery and danger alone, but Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy aren’t here just to prod at the baser desires of the audience. There is an otherworldly beauty to almost every scene in this film, even those set outside of The Shimmer. The quality of light, the vividness of colors, the clarity and symmetry of each image—all of it conspires to draw you in with wonder rather than keeping you on guard with menace. This is the rare movie where, despite all the reasons you’ve been given to fear what they may find, you openly root the characters to look closer, explore more, to find the answer.

These aesthetic choices aren’t made simply to be appealing bait for jump scares, though. Each gorgeous perversion of the known into the strange holds thematic relevance to the story. Every strange camera angle or shot looking through a water glass or doorway informs the themes and emotions of the film and its characters, reflecting and refracting the narrative back toward the audience. The particular spectrum of light in The Shimmer alone—like the rainbow created by spilled gasoline—says more than more exposition ever could. Films that worship at the alter of style for its own sake would be well served to take copious notes during a viewing of Annihilation.

This isn’t to say that the movie gets mired in its cerebral ambitions. While a study could be made of each scene purely on the basis of how it informs the meaning of the film (which I am certain will vary from person to person) the film functions as a tense, gripping mystery in its own right. From the strangeness of the environment to the brutal oddity of the sometimes dangerous creatures that inhabit it, this is a film that knows how to entertain on a reptilian level as it engages on a more philosophical plane.

Annihilation is almost paradoxical in the way in which it functions equally well as both a heady examination of the nature of self and as a tense thriller. As with the best movies, two people of vastly different backgrounds could enter the theater, watch every second of this film, and then exit praising vastly divergent aspects of its production and narrative while never being untrue to the objective experience of viewing it. That also means that the movie has a built-in, almost compulsory re-watch quality. Days later, my mind is still alive with this film, bounding from replaying the moments of action, excitement, and terror to turning over the intense, existentially oppressive questions that the film makes one confront.

Usually, saying that a film—or anything for that matter—has “something for everyone” is a polite way of saying that it is overstuffed and unfocused. Annihilation will stand as the rare exception; a film of such meticulous, painstaking construction that it creates an esoterica that, miraculously, should appeal to everyone.