In the grand tradition of the best sci-fi films out there, Annihilation is nearly impossible to describe. It’s not because its discrete actions are inscrutable (though it definitely gets there at times) but because it uses those otherworldly props to examine truly heady, indescribable ideas. And it does slowly—purposefully—one step at a time until you look up and you have been swallowed whole by writer/director Alex Garland’s tremendous deliberations.
His style is actually the most familiar thing about the movie, even though it is what brings about the most disturbing and contemplative. You can sort of see the beats laid out before you, taken and reshaped from the stories that came before it. But then like in 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and the absolutely stellar and similarly/terrifyingly introspective Ex Machina, Garland rips that banality from you and stuffs you into beautiful, blossoming nightmare.
Annihilation sets up its comfort skewing closely to the setup of Arrival, showing Lena (Natalie Portman), a former soldier, working in a university while struggling with gradually established tragic separation from her husband and active soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac). He’s been missing for the past 12 months, left on a mission with his entire squad vanishing without a trace. But suddenly, he shows up back in their house without a single clue as to how he got there or where he’s been.
One thing leads to another, however, and Lena and Kane end up nabbed by the government. It turns out Kane is the lone survivor of an expedition to explore a phenomenon located on the Florida coast called the Shimmer. People go in but they never come back out until Kane, but now to hopefully find a fix for what’s happening to him, Lena joins up with a new expedition comprised of psychologist and leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radek (Tess Thompson), and anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny).
The very nature of the Shimmer is what brings to fruition Garland’s interpretation of Jeff VanderMeer’s source material. It seems to warp time and space, rending reality as if it were nothing more than a single dandelion in a dangerously windy clearing. Their memories are unreliable, the things they’re seeing are unbelievable, and no one—despite their prodigious expertise in a variety of fields—can explain what is going.
But that eventually becomes they don’t want to explain what is going on. It’s clear things are not right what with creatures that shouldn’t—that can’t—exist and plants taking the form of human bodies and remnants of people lingering where they would otherwise be gone. It’s uneasy watching this journey shift and distort from exploration to survival to self-destruction. It’s a ponderance on what need could be.
Or maybe it isn’t. Much like Mother or Under the Skin, this twisting teaser of a movie isn’t going to be for everyone, eschewing answers for questions and stack mountains of unknowable enigmas atop your terra firma. Is it some sort of examination on the self and personal identity? Or maybe it is a proposition of the value of desire? Perhaps it’s an allegory for the ways despair can transform within a single tragedy.
There’s no clear answer, actually becoming muddier in the last half hour as the story resolves but the questions pile on. But it is also a breathless, exhilarating ride down an ongoing avalanche of impossible things. Never has an action scene that takes place in a single room felt so thrillingly expansive despite being literally claustrophobic as 2010’s Buried, though the oddly neat ending is rather incongruous with the quizzical nature of the story.
If the endless and progressive stream of mysteries isn’t enough to get you talking, then certainly the visuals will get you there. It’s a psychedelic and gorgeous and unnerving marriage of alien and natural design. In the same shot you’ll feel overwhelmed before enticed while thoroughly disgusted, let alone across an entire scene of developing and resolving emotions. Despite harboring a cold, slightly muted color palette, it feels the entire light spectrum eviscerating you at once.
It builds atop a rock solid foundation of performances that propel you even before the brain-bending parts begin. Portman is a fount of fire, spewing with volcanic amplitude the malformed and chilly emotions of a her melting biologist. Leigh channels and reins in her performance in The Hateful Eight, starting what seems like a 10 at simmering, tenuous insanity before somehow finding more room on the knob for something altogether transformative. (And yes, it is problematic that their characters are whitewashed, but that’s for another time.)
Rodriguez, however, deserves special recognition. Not only is there not a single hint of her sweetly tender and Golden Globe-winning role in Jane the Virgin but her midway scene is something wholly magnificent. It’s a breakdown that is menacing and untethered in a completely new way for this kind of character turn.
And this is all while the pulsing, pounding soundtrack from Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow works with the story to unsettle you from every other angle. There is an incredible amount to dissect with Annihilation from the aural to the visual to the thematic to the composition and so much more. This is an achievement for the modern sci-fi oeuvre where auteurs wax poetic on its simple and intoxicating premise of existence—of existing. Just take a deep breath and buckle up; Annihilation is going to take you for a ride.
Final Score: 9 out of 10