Alex Garland has been one of the most brilliant voices in film sci-fi for the last couple decades, penning screenplays for The Beach (his own novel), 28 Days Later, and Sunshine. Recently, he stepped into Directing with his AI mystery Ex Machina, which he also wrote. Garland often approaches the genre of science fiction very seriously and it’s through his characters we see the many reflections of humanity and how individuals would react under unique and unfamiliar circumstances. With Annihilation, Garland and co. foray into the unknown, unconcerned with big answers as they try to make sense of what’s happening to and around them.
A few years ago, a meteor of some sort crashed into the Earth in a National Park in America. At the site of the crash, a wall of energy slowly materializes and begins expanding outwards in a circle. Over a three-year period, what’s been dubbed “the shimmer” has continued to expand and overtake land as exhibition teams have been sent inside to gather any information they can about what the phenomenon is. When Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns home to his wife Lena (Natalie Portman) after supposedly being away on a secret mission, the two are abducted and brought back to a secret site near the shimmer.
Kane is dying and given Lena’s past in the military and as a biologist, she offers to join the next expedition into the shimmer in an attempt to discover how she could heal her husband who’s fallen deathly ill. She joins a team of: Josie the physicist (Tessa Thompson), Anya the paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), Cass the anthropologist (Tuva Novotny), and the head of the group organizing the research, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Together, these women venture into “Area X” and from there, things get weird and wild.
Almost immediately, the film’s visuals grab your attention and pull you into a world of immense beauty which has been morphed by the shimmer. The striking colors of the flowers which seem to grow anywhere and in any way are just the first indicator that something fascinating is occurring to any type of life that’s contained within the shimmer. There are mutations in the fauna that shouldn’t exist in nature, yet are somehow living and adapting to the phenomenon around them. With the group they have, their specialties certainly come in handy while trying to evaluate what’s taking place now that they’re witnessing everything firsthand.
Natalie Portman leads the charge hesitantly, but with a curiosity that reflects a certain part of our human nature. What we don’t understand can affect people in different ways as we try to grasp what’s real and what’s not. Portman brings a great deal of complexity and honesty to her role as Lena, burdened by her past mistakes and a drive to save her husband. Her time in combat keeps her on her toes and she’s perhaps the most rational thinker in the group, keeping a calmness to her demeanor that doesn’t always match up with how she feels in her mind. There’s a great fear that she also possesses, which works in a sense of horror and survival in beautiful harmony.
Among all the scientific flair and wonder, Annihilation also offers up some truly horrifying moments which are both unexpected and brilliantly brutal. In an age of technology and so many advancements throughout time, nature has always proved to be a more worthy adversary. As we unravel more of the mystery behind the shimmer and its effects, we go deeper into the dark and what a scary place it can be. There were moments during the film in which I flinched massively and receded far into my chair. Garland loves his visuals crisp and clean, which makes for some stomach-turning scenes.
Tessa Thompson offers a very gentle and more relaxed performance than anyone else in the film. She’s not entirely concerned with learning too much about what’s going in, rather she’s taking in all the beauty and changes around her and finding an appreciation for the life she feels around her. Gina Rodriguez is by far the most skeptical of the group, anxious about the whole mission and about everything that’s been happening within the shimmer. She’s one aspect of the film I wish was given more time, in the sense that her experience and her understanding of events is less inherently scientific and revealing than the other women’s.
I do feel like a bit more time could have been given to the supporting cast as they explore the shimmer and how it continues to affect them, but Garland is wise not to get too bogged down in asking and answering too many questions. I can easily see how this film could frustrate some, as it leaves a good deal of the mystery for you to piece together on your own, but it also never gives you one definitive reason for anything that’s happening. However, that’s never been Garland’s style and this movie’s aim is not to spoon-feed you, rather present something for you to decide what matters and what doesn’t.
Annihilation is a worthy and incredibly enjoyable follow-up to Ex Machina, a film which truly plays with your mind and has you questioning what “real” even is and means. There’s never one right approach to the unknown and Garland enjoys taking us through scientific and intuition-filled thought experiments which reveal a great deal about ourselves. I do think that this is a film which warrants a second viewing to really understand and make sense of everything going on, but after a first viewing I can say that we’ve got some brilliant and massively entertaining science fiction on our hands. Be sure to see this film on the biggest and brightest screen you can find. It’s simply mesmerizing to watch.