In a cinematic landscape littered with remakes, copycats and formulaic fluff, playing against expectations is almost always a wonderful thing, and even when it doesn’t fully work, audiences should root as often as possible for an opportunity to be surprised. Annihilation is reminiscent, but mostly unlike, most mainstream movies they’ve seen – especially recently – and writer-director Alex Garland’s instinct to embrace a sense of introspection rather than amplifying the sexier (or scarier) aspects of Jeff VanderMeer’s source material feels like the right one. But even if the film’s twists and turns are too intriguing to spoil (and possibly even explain, after just one viewing), Annihilation should not be mistaken for the movie it’s being advertised as – which may be bad for its box office prospects, but good for prospective ticket buyers looking for a more unhurried, thoughtful, and daresay original experience.
Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist who volunteers to join a team to investigate an environmental disaster zone after her husband, a soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac), disappeared while exploring the area a year before, only to return terminally ill. Joining three other women Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson) and Cass (Tuva Novotny) under the leadership of psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the quintet quickly discovers how the area, called “the shimmer,” disrupts their equipment and disorients their planned trajectory, to a lighthouse from which they believe this rapidly-evolving disturbance first emanated. But as they encounter an increasing variety of non-indigenous flora and hostile fauna, the women begin to realize that they are changing as well and are soon forced to decide whether to abandon their mission in order to hopefully save themselves, or push on and discover the truth about the shimmer before it expands, and engulfs, the larger world around it.
With comparisons to mind-trip odysseys like 2001 already infecting the conversation around the film, Annihilation reminds of Stanley Kubrick’s classic most in its unhurried, poetic quiet, as well as its likelihood to divide audiences. Neither film dedicates as much energy to explaining things as, well, moviegoers typically want, and while that’s a good thing on occasion – as it is in both Kubrick and Garland’s case – it will likely prove discomfiting to those expecting a story about a bunch of hot scientist women fighting monsters in the dark. But even if there are some truly fearsome creatures that the five women in this film must face, Annihilation is less about that short-term suspense than the premise that gave birth to them, and which eventually challenges their perception of the world: what happens when a force, an entity, transforms who you are at a molecular level?
Garland’s film feels like an externalization of the notion that there’s no such thing as objectivity, be it in scientific study, or more helpfully to him, film criticism. Lena and her team go into the shimmer to retrieve information about its source with the hope of returning, but by simply studying their environment, they change it, and it them. Simultaneously, Lena, motivated by the desire to find a cure for her ailing husband, and perhaps the guilt of their estrangement before he first disappeared, revisits moments in their life together, and occasionally apart, that seem inadvertently to feed into the evolution of the environment inside the shimmer, as plants and flowers grow and contort into human shapes, silhouettes of families and shared moments that have long since passed. Without quite realizing it, Lena and her companions are literally walking through memories, haunted by a forest filled by and built upon human emotion. That each of them has a complex past – as we all do – only further amplifies the confusion brought on as they venture further into the shimmer, watching their physical bodies absorb and react to its effects.
Concurrently, there are numerous moments of disturbing – and delightfully disgusting – gore, wonderfully unlike very much that audiences have likely seen before. (Much of the production design inside the shimmer feels like some perverse midpoint between H.R. Giger and Claude Monet, with bodies distended and exploded across canvasses covered in kaleidoscopic florals.) But even if Lena’s journey to the center of the shimmer is as much one of literal survival as soul-searching, the film falls slightly short as a consistently visceral experience, and maybe more problematically, an emotional one – which again, may not matter to some, but if you’re expecting an earthbound Aliens (or even something more hard-science based, like Arrival), the experience may leave you slightly cold. Nevertheless, Annihilation asks some big, essential questions, and the biggest thrill comes from watching a film astute enough to know it doesn’t have all the answers, leaving its audience to contemplate, and embody, these sophisticated but indisputably universal themes – emerging changed by the experience, but not yet knowing quite how.
Update: writer provided a rating, which was added below.