Annihilation blew my mind. From the opening scene to the bizarre ambiguous ending, Annihilation is a head-trip that never quits. Directed by Alex Garland, the mastermind behind Ex Machina, Annihilation combines aliens, existential crisis, and Natalie Portman into an awesome sci-fi acid trip with hints of Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick, and John Carpenter in its filmic DNA.
Lena (Natalie Portman) has been mourning the loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) for nearly a year when he randomly arrives home. Haunted and mysterious, Kane refuses to say anything other than some cryptic gibberish before he falls deathly ill. On the way to the hospital, Lena and Kane are hijacked by balaclava-wearing government agents and hustled away to a secret government facility somewhere in the American south.
Dazed and confused, Lena demands to know what is happening and her questions are soon answered by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). It seems that the secret government mission that Kane had been on, one on which she’d assumed he’d been killed and disavowed during, was actually still ongoing. Moreover, Lena with her background in both the army and as a biologist is a perfect candidate to continue Kane’s mission and perhaps find a way to save his life.
That is a perfectly straightforward description of the first few minutes of Annihilation but trust me when I tell you we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface. Lena’s mission, on which she will be joined by Dr. Ventress and fellow military scientists, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) will take her into The Shimmer, a giant wall of light into which many have gone before but only one has come out of in the last three years.
The Shimmer might sound a tad cheesy, like something out of a My Little Pony cartoon. But, writer-director Garland, working from the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, has many terrifying surprises in store for once we get past the idea of something called The Shimmer. Inside the gelatinous wall, time stops making sense and whatever is in this alien atmosphere begins to attack at the cellular level of our heroes.
I will not spoil the visual delights and terrors of The Shimmer. I will only say that the influences of both Terence Malick and John Carpenter are represented in the awesome and terrifying sights to behold. Annihilation will both thrill you and perhaps sicken you with the visuals on display, all while the story keeps you completely off-balance and out of step with the characters.
Annihilation, like the works of Terence Malick and some of Stanley Kubrick, will not be for all audiences. The visuals will turn stomachs as much as they delight you while the often impenetrable story will have some audiences tearing their hair out over whether they understand the movie or not. I loved Annihilation even as I can honestly say I am not sure I get what Garland is going for.
I know for sure that I was entertained and enthralled by Annihilation but in terms of the story and the arc of the characters in Annihilation, I have only theories and best guesses. Portman is on an existential journey that includes aspects of her marriage and the conflicting ideals of her military background and her life as a scientist and professor. Lena is a fascinating character but also one that is at a distance from the audience in ways that typical protagonists are not.
Annihilation is like a sci-fi arthouse movie. It has that above it all, indie air but with the budget and scope of a mainstream sci-fi feature. A lot of movies like this would lead me to be more critical of the dissonance between the aims of the arthouse and the blockbuster, but Annihilation is so awe-inspiring and unique that I can’t be mad about it. If the disconnect between the mainstream and indie ideals is the biggest problem with Annihilation, that just goes to show how incredible the movie is.
Writer-director Alex Garland is now two for two with masterpieces of sci-fi filmmaking. Bold, unique, daring and creepy, Annihilation is even better than Ex Machina and demonstrates Garland’s remarkable maturity and talent. Just two films into his career, Garland is showing himself to be one of the directors to watch out for alongside people like Ava Duvernay, Jeremy Saulnier, and Denis Villenueve.
We are in the midst of a directorial golden age and in Annihilation, Alex Garland has crafted yet another signpost of this golden age, a masterpiece that combines art and genre-filmmaking. Like Duvernay and Villenueve, Garland is making big budget, mainstream movies without losing his independence and artistry.