Alex Garland proved he knows how to conceive smart, gorgeous, and intense science fiction with Ex Machina, but with Annihilation, he demonstrates that he isn’t just a flash-in-the-plan director. His follow-up film contains another heaping dose of profound characters, intelligent dialogue, and enough gorgeous and psychedelic sci-fi imagery to make the eyes refuse to blink. Even though Garland’s film is based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, he approaches the material as though he read a mountain of European sci-fi comics, binge-watched Fantastic Planet, or went on the best acid trip of his life. The results are nothing short of transcendent.
Earth has been hit with a strange meteor that collides with a lighthouse in Florida. From its arrival, an expanding barrier referred to as The Shimmer starts to claim the area around the state. Many teams enter to find out what is causing this phenomenon, but nobody comes back. Enlisted for the latest expedition inside is Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and former soldier. When her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is the only survivor of the last mission and not in the best of conditions, she decides to venture inside to find a reason for the alien season. She’s accompanied by the all-female team of the shrill psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the kick-butt soldier Anya (Gina Rodriguez), the glasses-wearing tech Josie (Tessa Thompson), and the stoic volunteer Cass (Tuva Novotny).
Naturally, weird stuff starts happening to the group once they enter The Shimmer. They start losing track of their memories, forgetting when they first set up camp for the night. They uncover exotic foliage and plant life, otherworldly in how it grows and contorts the environment. And, of course, some nasty mutations go on the offensive, including alligators and bears that don’t quite seem to act like alligators or bears. One by one, the crew is picked off the further they trek through the oddly infested lands to reach the lighthouse and uncover the mystery.
Garland is so confident with this story that he not only shoots it non-linear but even begins the movie with the ending, stating outright who died on the mission before we even see it. The visuals slowly ease the viewer into its worlds, both the internal conflict of Lena’s strained relationships and the weirdness of the Shimmer land. This is no mere monster island of creepy critters that want to repopulate their species or dominate human life. Without giving too much away, the entity causing the Shimmer has more in common with light refraction than little men from Mars that want to kill us.
But how could I possibly spoil the film’s unbelievable and mostly dialogue-free third act that is pure cinema ambrosia? What the entity turns out to be and the real intentions are revealed in a vivid experience of the most surreal, beautiful, and frightening of a dreamlike sequence. To even describe beat for beat what goes down won’t even come close to spoiling the visual splendor and chilling discovery of trying to figure out this puzzling picture. Any assumptions one might have had about where this story goes will melt away at this point in the film. I spoke with another critic on this ending who responded that he turned to his wife and stated that he hadn’t been this high since 2001: A Space Odyssey. And it’s an apt comparison for a finale that invites the audience to come closer with its weirdly intoxicating examinations of mysterious forces and our place in the world.
Annihilation encompasses so much of what makes science fiction creepy, emotional, and mind-bending. There’s been talk that Paramount had wanted to rework the film, fearing that it would be too intellectual and complicated for wider audiences. Perhaps it is, but it’s a film worth taking a chance on for Garland’s astounding vision that was not tampered with on the final cut. It is a shame that other countries will only be seeing this film on streaming services as opposed to the theater. A movie this grand and beautiful deserves to be seen on the big screen as Garland intended. Going back to the comparison to 2001: A Space Odyssey, I heard tell that Stanley Kubrick’s classic would garner repeat viewings from audiences that would get high around the theater during intermission and come back inside to lay on the floor during the film’s mesmerizing second act. Is Annihilation that good? Let’s just say I wouldn’t venture into the alley behind the theater, but that I’d be finding a seat closer to the screen.