Love it or hate it, Alex Garland’s gorgeous and challenging follow-up to Ex Machina is like nothing else you’ll see at the movies this year.
It’s not destroying. It’s creating…making something new.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously mused that a man cannot step into the same river twice. The river is always changing with the current and becoming something new in the process. But furthermore, the man is always changing as well. Even if the river were to somehow remain the same, he would be a different man than the one who came and stepped before.
That’s what I kept thinking to myself as I watched Alex Garland’s new film Annihilation, a film destined to produce responses ranging from “masterpiece” to “crock of sh-t” depending on the viewer. Garland’s film is equal parts unsettling and beautiful, brilliant and beguiling. It’s hard to even place a genre tag on it, though sci-fi horror is probably the best option for anything Garland has touched including his scripts for Never Let Me Go and 28 Days Later, his cult novel The Beach, and his directorial debut Ex Machina. Like those other works Annihilation is a film about confronting the unknown and emotional responses it evokes. Just be prepared to leave you thirst for answers at the door because Annihilation purposely makes no effort to answer them. It’s less a direct adaptation of Jeff Van Der Meer’s source novel than a reinterpretation of its themes, an apt decision for a story about evolution as a creative force.
It’s no accident that one of the film’s early images is of cells dividing under a microscope. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a former soldier and biologist recruited as part of a reconnaissance team chosen to explore Area X, a Bermuda Triangle-like area that exists behind “the shimmer,” an oil slick barrier blocking all efforts to examine the area from the exterior. What is the cause and source of the shimmer? No one knows, and all efforts to probe its depths have resulted in the loss (and presumably deaths) of the teams sent to explore its secrets. All anyone knows is that the shimmer is expanding and they need to understand why before it swells beyond its current swampy confines and swallows the surrounding cities, states, and perhaps the whole world.
Lena’s expeditionary force is comprised entirely of women, a departure from the groups of paramilitary men previously ordered into the shimmer. These females are volunteer scientists, a biologist, a physicist, and a psychologist, among them all searching for answers. But the majority of the group is missing out on an important piece of information: something finally has come back from beyond the shimmer. Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) suddenly reappeared almost a year after his expedition’s departure with no memory or explanation of his time in Area X or his sudden reappearance in he and Lena’s house. Kane is quickly quarantined, and Lena volunteers for the next expedition in search of answers. Only Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a member of shadowy body organizing the expeditionary teams who is herself joining this newest group, knows of Lena’s connection to Kane.
Have no fear. I’m not spoiling the film. That’s all prologue for what happens once Lena and the team pass through the shimmer into Area X, one of the most visually interesting “other” worlds in recent cinematic memory. The terror of what the team finds isn’t that it’s alien but that it’s so nearly familiar, as though everything they expected to find in the former swampland has been tweaked or evolved in surprising ways. As much as Annihilation owes to science fiction films like Alien, The Thing, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it owes equal deference to inhospitable jungle films like Apocalypse Now or Aguirre, the Wrath of God, traversing the same terrain of the equal beauty and the fear of the unknown. Annihilation is first a foremost a triumph of atmosphere and tone.
It’s also is a joy to look at, every bit the desktop background generator that Ex Machina was for gifs of Oscar Isaac dancing. Cinematographer Rob Hardy and the production design team have created a world that somehow feels claustrophobic in its sense of present danger and inescapable in its expanding vastness. But for every scene of horror urging the characters and the audience to flee the shimmer as soon as possible, there’s another of colorful beauty begging you to stay and experience this wonderland. To describe any of the film’s glorious frames would be to rob them of their surprise, but Garland’s film is filled with images that reminded me of seeing the space jockey in Alien for the first time. When something powerful is described as a force of nature, that’s both awe-inspiring and terrifying. Inspiring in its beauty and capacity, and terrifying for the remembrance that nature is a force that does not care about your survival.
Much hubbub was made about Portman and Leigh’s casting in recent days with some accusing the film of whitewashing characters described with Asian and Native American heritage in the literary sequels to Jeff Van Der Meer’s original novel, but Garland gets a pass on this from me (for the record, I’ve read the entire Southern Reach Trilogy and could not have told you any character’s ethnicity. They’re intentionally presented without names or descriptions, referring to each other only by profession). He’s noted that he only read Annihilation, and the film does have a widely diverse cast including Benedict Wong, Oscar Isaac, David Gyasi, and impressive performances from expedition team members Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson who both play against type.
Thompson’s quiet, bookish performance is a complete departure from the self-assured swagger of her work in Creed and Thor: Ragnarok, and anyone who’s only seen Rodriguez on Jane the Virgin might be shocked to see her as the team’s vulgar, physically imposing paramedic. I couldn’t take my eyes off Rodriguez who jumps off the screen with ferocity. Portman’s intentionally conservative performance feels flat in comparison. Garland wants to play her as a cypher, but a film as open-ended as Annihilation would benefit from a stronger central performance to build the story around.
The expeditionary team and the film itself slowly fixates on a lighthouse that might be the shimmer’s origin, but the team must rush to get there as they confront whether the environment that’s changing their surroundings is changing them as well. As with any film like this, the questions are what drive the film, and Garland is wise enough to leave the film’s central mysteries investigated but unsolved, a tactic that will thrill some and enrage others. A good litmus test for your enjoyment is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you’re frustrated by that film’s lack of conclusive narrative then Annihilation is probably one to skip, but if you’re fascinated by its visual invention and endless interpretation then Garland’s film will be a real treat. The less said about Annihilation’s climax the better, though I wonder what words anyone would use to describe it properly. I’ve never seen another sequence that so closely evokes the same feelings that the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” until now, and I mean every bit of the high praise that analogy will bring. Give me an eerie film over a scary film any day, and Garland delivers that in spades.
I can’t talk about the film without remembering to praise the film’s producer Scott Rudin, who had final cut privileges and sided with Garland in a showdown with a studio that saw the film as “too intellectual” and lacking commercial appeal (leading to a direct-to-Netflix release outside the US). He deserves applause from anyone who values film as an art form rather than just an investment aimed at the broadest audience possible. Yes, the film’s first half is undeniably slow, and the structural use of recurring flashbacks hamper the film’s flow, but they yield undeniable thematic results.
(Note: with the financial failures of Blade Runner 2049 and Mother! it’s going to get harder and harder for studios to justify bankrolling the heady filmmaking that cinephiles always claim they want. If you care about this kind of thing, you need to put your money where your mouth is and go to the theater.)
Realistically, Annihilation probably isn’t going to recoup its budget, but everyone who sees the film will be dying to talk about it whether in hatred or praise. This film is going to have a million interpretations, and none of them can be solidified with just one viewing. This is one of the best science fiction films of the 2010s, and it’s going to be rewatched and reinterpreted for years. I can’t wait.