Once the film hits its stride, it grows from compelling thriller into a breathless, trippy, bone-chilling mixture of vintage influences.
Annihilation, writer-director Alex Garland’s gorgeous, terrifying, thought-provoking adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s lean, mean 2014 novel, is one of the best science fiction films of recent years. Because the novel is brief and purposefully elusive, Garland was left with plenty of room in which to include his own vision while still honoring the book, and he achieves this beautifully.
As in the novel, an all-female team of scientists embarks on an expedition into an environmental disaster zone called “The Shimmer” (so named because of its ever-expanding, iridescent border) in order to discover what is causing this humanity-threatening phenomenon as well as figure out what happened to the members of the many expeditions that have gone in before them. Right off the bat, Garland expands the story by adding more overtly extraterrestrial hints and more backstory for Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist whose husband (Oscar Isaac) is the only member of a previous expedition to have returned home.
Led by the excellent Portman, Annihilation is particularly notable in that five of the film’s six main roles are female, and each of the characters (and the actresses who play them) are uniquely badass. Even when the necessary character-on-character conflict arises, Garland wisely expands upon VanderMeer’s twisty take on female “hysteria” by first grounding all of these women as strong, brave and tough. When they begin to turn on each other, the audience is forced to confront their own expectations.
Allowing for frequent pops of frantic action (remember, Garland wrote the game-changing 28 Days Later), the ceaseless feeling of growing dread is the real driving force here. As the biologist, the mission leader (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), the physicist (Tessa Thompson) and the anthropologist (Tuva Novotny) venture further into the Shimmer, they subsequently find themselves further from reality. They begin to doubt their senses, a problem compounded when they explore the area that previous expeditions used as a home base. What they find there is visually impressive and philosophically enticing.
Once the film hits its stride, it grows from compelling thriller into a breathless, trippy, bone-chilling mixture of vintage influences like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Arrival and The Thing, but with its own voice and visual palette. Where the novel was a more literary version of a Crichton-esque thriller, the film is a less precious, weirder, more cerebral take on Spielbergian sci-fi spectacle. Imagine if you tossed Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Tarkovsky’s Solaris into a blender along with a heavy dash of feminism. That’s Annihilation.
Some may say that the film poses more questions than it answers, but unlike recent brainy, understated thrillers such as It Comes at Night, the answers to many of Annihilation’s mysteries are apparent if you know where to look. The canny viewer will find hints in everything from the locations to the creature design, and while nothing is explicitly spelled out, it’s all there if you’re willing to look for it. It is a film, however, that begs for multiple viewings, as the ending calls into question everything that came before.
It would have been welcome to see more practical effects incorporated; the visual effects are a bit overly CGI at times. But beyond the cracking script, the performances are the standout, with Portman doing expectedly strong, sensational work. Rodriguez is the most surprising, playing the opposite of her quirky “Jane the Virgin” character.
Though based on a popular novel and though Garland is coming off a relative hit (Ex Machina), it still feels like a small miracle that the profoundly weird, occasionally abrasive Annihilation was made at all, let alone that it’s a truly satisfying sci-fi adventure, filled with important questions, uncomfortable answers and a layer upon layer of mystery in between.