I hate being hyperbolic, especially at the top of a review, but it would not be going too far to say that I love Alex Garland’s new film, “Annihilation.” With a screenplay from Garland, based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation” stars Natalie Portman as Lena, a former soldier turned Johns Hopkins scientist who gets drawn in to a scientific/military mission into the unknown.
Because some more explanation is required, Lena is brought into the fold of a super-secret group when Kane (Oscar Isaac), her husband and a soldier, becomes the first person to return from a mission to something called the “Shimmer.” Essentially, a meteor crashed on earth and created an ever-expanding shimmery dome with, perhaps, something hidden inside the dome. The U.S., naturally, is quite upset about this because as the dome expands it takes away land and goodness knows what’s happening inside the area.
Miraculously well-suited to accompany the next group going into the Shimmer due to her scientific and military background, Lena joins Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) on their trip inside. Once there, things get weird. The plant life seems wrong, the animals seem wrong. Everything seems wrong, and the team instantly begins encountering issues.
I don’t know if that’s quite enough of an explanation, but I do know that to give much more of one would spoil the absolute wonder that is the experience of watching this movie.
“Annihilation” is both beautiful and terrifying. More than that though, it makes the terrifying—like some of the plant and animal creations—beautiful.
This is not a movie solely concerned with external terrors either, Lena and her compatriots have to face their own set of internal issues as well. Everyone who has gone on the mission has done so knowing full well that they may not return. It is viewed as something of a suicide mission, no one having returned, save Kane, in the three years since the Shimmer started. So, as this group explores the Shimmer they also, to greater and lesser degrees, have to confront what’s happened to them in their own lives.
We don’t get as much of a story on the individuals outside of Lena as one might like, but Thompson, Rodriguez, Leigh, and Novotny imbue their characters with a touching sort of humanity. They may have flaws, they may have issues, but they are all there doing the right thing, doing their best, and living through what rapidly becomes a nightmare.
The visuals offered by Garland and his team are nothing short of amazing (even if one or two CGI effects don’t look perfect). The world that has been created within the Shimmer is full of wonderful details and utterly unique. At moments it is like a fever dream.
In fact, the entire movie functions as something like a fever dream. It is told within a frame that has Lena explaining to a group of people led by Lomax (Benedict Wong) what happened within the Shimmer on her trip. Then, within the story she is telling, there are dreams and flashbacks and maybe mixes of the two. Videos are also offered of one of previous teams to enter the Shimmer.
Time isn’t quite malleable within “Annihilation,” but Garland plays with it nonetheless. It is a story told slightly out of order, but it has greater impact for it while assuring the audience that it would still be interesting even if told in linear fashion.
Another big success of “Annihilation” is its ability to tell a larger story about humanity as well as the little stories about the people involved in this mission. The relationship between Lena and Kane is an essential part of the tale, as are the bits and pieces we get to learn about the rest of the team.
All of this praise should not be construed as my believing the movie is perfect. It is all a little too fortuitous that it is Kane, Lena’s husband, to be the one person to return from the Shimmer and that Lena just happens to have the exact skillset required to go in with Dr. Ventress’ group. But, repeated viewings of the movie, or a deep delve but those with the time and energy to do it, very likely might yield a productive theory on how this all makes sense within the movie’s narrative.
“Annihilation” may be best described as a sci-fi horror, and it certainly offers a few good scares. However, it is so much more than that. It is a clever bit of storytelling wrapped around a tale worth the effort, managing to be smart and exciting as well as scary.
photo credit: Paramount Pictures and Skydance