With ‘Annihilation,’ filmmaker Alex Garland has created one of the most challenging science fiction films of the decade.
One of the more fun tenets of the search for extraterrestrial life is that, if we ever were to actually make contact, their intelligence would be nearly impossible for us to comprehend. Like something out of a Lovecraftian novel, extraterrestrials could belong to a plane of existence – or adhere to laws of nature we have yet to even discover – that would make them unknowable to humanity. This concept has spurred some of the most exciting science fiction films of the past few decades; movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar have offered a vision of the future where mankind sits far below other lifeforms on the evolutionary scale. And with Annihilation, filmmaker Alex Garland throws his hat into the ring of high-concept science fiction that will surely delight and confound audiences in equal amounts.
It’s been over a year since Kane (Oscar Isaac) went missing during his latest tour of duty, and Lena (Natalie Portman) is still stuck in her grief. She sleepwalks through her lectures on microbiology at Johns Hopkins, forgoing colleagues in favor of endless requests for information from the United States military. So when Kane appears at her door one day – confused and unable to answer any questions about where he has been – Lena is understandably concerned, a concern that grows to a full-blown panic when Kane’s body violently begins to shut down. Lena soon finds herself in a military base on the edge of the Shimmer, an inexplicable and expanding barrier that threatens to soon envelop the entire Southeast. At the behest of military psychology Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Lena enlists to join the military’s next expedition into the Shimmer, hoping to find both an answer for what happened to her husband – and, just maybe, a cure.
In most movies like Annihilation – supposing, of course, that there are other movies like Annihilation – the scene where the protagonist is enlisted to join the expedition plays out as a series of strong emotions. Anger. Disbelief. Grief. What’s so striking about the first scenes between Lena and Dr. Ventress is how quickly both characters discover candor as their common ground. Lena is truthful about the circumstances of reuniting with Kane and, eventually, her desire to head into the Shimmer; for her part, Ventress does not duck Lena’s difficult questions nor shy away from her culpability in the disappearance of Kane and his squad. Their early interactions set the tone for the remainder of the film, one where competency and experience supersede the broad emotional beats we expect to find in even the smartest soldiers-vs-the-unknown science fiction. At its best, Annihilation demonstrates why so many sci-fi movies fail their characters by not allowing them to be, and remain, intelligent.
It also doesn’t hurt that Garland has enlisted a quartet of powerful actresses to play the leading roles. Portman has never shied away from more difficult projects, leveraging her hard-earned Hollywood clout into films like Black Swan and Jackie; she anchors Annihilation from the first moment she appears onscreen. Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson, playing more conventional roles as the unhinged and neurotic teammates, make Anya and Josie more than just the expected redshirts of the expedition. Jennifer Jason Leigh, now 40 years into her marvelous career, also provides a welcome inversion of the corporate suit. She and Portman imbue their characters with a sense of finality – a desire to see this through, though not at the unnecessary expense of human life – that propels both Lena and Ventress through to the film’s important final scenes.
And Garland needs every ounce of that acting talent, because Annihilation is endlessly, breathtakingly complex. Often playing out like a National Geographic documentary from some alien planet – with Lena and company meticulously observing and cataloging the various permutations of human, animal, and plant life they find within the Shimmer – Annihilation moves with a freedom unseen in most studio science fiction. The Shimmer is a kaleidoscope of known biology and botany; throughout their journey, Lena and company encounter an astonishing array of human-plant and plant-animal hybrids, there to be observed by the audience more than understood. The closer they get to the lighthouse at the center of the Shimmer, the more Garland also veers into territory typically reserved for directors like David Cronenberg and Clive Barker. Even the best horror directors may go their entire careers without visualizing a concept as terrifying as Annihilation‘s skinless human-bear hybrid, one cursed to perpetually give voice to a character’s dying screams.
But as Lena closes in on the answers she seeks, one question remains for us: will Annihilation find its audience? Earlier this week, ScreenCrush critic Matt Singer tweeted that he was breathlessly anticipating the CinemaScore for Annihilation, a sentiment that also kept bouncing through my head as the film pressed fast-forward on evolution heading into its finale. It’s not enough that Garland grounds his film in difficult concepts like astrobiology; the writer-director also seems determined to avoid any singular interpretation or theory about his narrative. Annihilation is a movie of questions, not answers, and while the characters and arresting visuals ensure that the film is fully accessible to everyone, this opacity will certainly spark resentment on behalf of many moviegoers. For as much hand-wringing as we did about Annihilation’s international Netflix distribution, it seems this is the rare studio move where both parties were proven correct. Annihilation is a science fiction journey the likes of which we rarely see in theaters. Enjoy it, American audiences, while you can.