We’re in a stellar moment for heady, sci-fi entertainment.
Director Alex Garland leads that charge, writing some of the best entries the genre has seen over the last decade: 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd and Ex Machina all made an impact. His latest is Annihilation, an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name.
Good news: It’s weird as fuck.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Annihilation]
Annihilation starts like a pretty typical sci-fi movie. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology professor and former soldier whose current husband (Oscar Isaac) goes missing on a mission. He’s presumed dead for the last year but then, out of the blue, shows up in her house with seemingly no memory or explanation of where he’s been. Then he starts bleeding from his mouth.
That’s about where typical takes a break.
Soldiers bring Lena to a mysterious location known as Area X where she discovers that her husband’s mission involved exploring something referred to as “The Shimmer.” It’s best described as a bubble of distorted light that appeared one day around a lighthouse in the middle of a state park. It started to grow, until it was miles wide, subsuming military bases and towns along the way.
Fun fact: Everyone who goes into the bubble to figure out what the heck is going on never comes out. Except for Oscar Isaac, but he’s not exactly in the best shape, lying in a bloody, writhing coma.
Lena, having nothing to lose, joins an all-female squad of equally-damaged scientists to crack the mystery and save her husband.
For those who read the novel this film is based on, it’s clear this is already way more explanation than was given in the opening pages of the book. For one thing, you actually know everyone’s names (in the book you just got the first initial of their profession, as in B for biologist), but there’s still plenty of wonderment and horror within The Shimmer.
The squad’s memories seem to be shifting and fading, with hours turning into days without them even realizing. And yet, as scientists, they’re amazed by their surroundings. Wildly variant flowers seem to be hybridizing and spreading in massive splashes of color across the bleak, forested landscape. Some of these plants have the structure of quasi-human bodies, complete with inanimate arms and legs.
Suffice to to say, things go wrong pretty quickly. It’s not just flora out there, and the fauna seems to be suffering from similar, twisted effects. It’s here that Annihilation’s production design really shines through, as animals like bears are conveyed in beautifully horrific ways. A bear-like creature is particularly heinous, yielding one of the most menacingly-tense scenes I’ve seen in years.
The production designer, Mark Digby, famously showed off his expertise in Ex Machina. In Annihilation, though, he leans in a little harder, with unimaginable gore twistingly blended with beauty.
The visuals admittedly steal the show. Portman’s performance is strong, but the rest of the cast feels underused, like the a disposable squad of space marines. The writing also seems to struggle with needing to explain precisely what’s going on within The Shimmer, with various flash-forward scenes that bluntly fill in what Lena is going through. It’s no surprise, as the novel was particularly vague about the mystery as well, but the film falls in an uncomfortable middle ground between offering specifics and leaving blanks, neither of which feel super satisfying.
It’s important to realize that the mystery is not the point. The last 10 minutes of the film, which has almost no dialog, is majorly bonkers headtrip. Set and production design go completely unhinged, in a good way, and we’re offered a genuinely bizarre and disturbing confrontation will stick with me for the foreseeable future.
Unlike Ex Machina, whose thesis was decidedly clear, Annihilation feels like waking from a dream and only half-remembering what happened. It succeeds in making the audience experience that same level of mystery and confusion that those on screen are experiencing.
So long as everyone’s ok with never really getting the full story and just appreciating this fucked up dream for what it is.