With his new film Annihilation, director Alex Garland is attempting bold, exhilarating science fiction that is on par with a master of the genre, the late Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. The science fiction films that Tarkovsky made used fantastic settings and circumstances to explore the human condition. His film Solaris is a meditation on grief and acceptance that takes place on a fictional planet with mysterious powers. Stalker involves characters who wish to travel to “The Zone,” a place that contains a room that can fulfill a person’s innermost desires. Annihilation also uses a cosmic, head-trip scenario to examine human fears, mostly our collective fear of being wiped out of existence. Garland is masterful at creating a mood of existential dread and using a sci-fi backdrop to employ glorious, overwhelming imagery, but his movie never really gets below the surface of its premise.
The story – which Garland adapted from a novel – concerns an expedition made up of five women. There’s Lena, a biologist and former U.S. Army soldier, team lead and psychologist Dr. Ventress, physicist Josie, paramedic Anya, and geologist Cass. The team’s mission is to explore Area X, a large swath of land containing an undeveloped state park. Lena joins the team because her husband, Kane, has come back from Area X gravely ill. Until his sudden return, all Lena knew was that Kane was on a secret military mission, and he had been missing for over a year. Ventress tells Lena that for over three years, a mysterious, iridescent halo of light – which the government has dubbed “The Shimmer” – has defined the boundary of Area X, and it’s slowly growing. Over a dozen teams have entered The Shimmer, but only Kane has returned. This new team headed by Ventress – the first non-military expedition into Area X – will collect data and try to reach the point where The Shimmer started, a lighthouse on the coast, to determine what’s causing it, and how to stop it.
Garland is using a staple of the sci-fi genre, extraterrestrial forces, to explore the fragility of the human species and the precariousness of our habitat, the pale blue dot. Don’t worry, I didn’t just spoil anything for you. We see in the opening minutes of Annihilation that it’s a meteor crashing into the lighthouse that sets the story in motion. It’s the discovery of what’s inside the meteor during the picture’s last act that provides the mind-bending climax. The disappointment of Garland’s script is that any time his characters begin to discuss bigger themes, he cuts them off with a horror movie style scare. Annihilation is a movie of big ideas, and lots of them, but they’re never fully explored.
A great example of this comes early in the film. The story has a flashback structure, beginning with Lena in quarantine as a man in a hazmat suit debriefs her on what happened to her team inside Area X. The man tells Lena that her team was gone for over four months, but she remembers the mission as lasting only days, a few weeks at most. The team does seem to have a strange gap in their memories after what they think is their first night in Area X. More food is gone from their supplies than should be, and there are signs that they’ve made and broken camp multiple times, even though they’ve just arrived. This idea about the slippery structure of time while our heroes are inside Area X is an intriguing one, but Garland never returns to it after these first few scenes. It’s introduced as a tantalizing concept only to be discarded without further mention.
Annihilation also achieves a satisfying amount of spellbinding moments filled with wonder, but several of them are cut short for easy scares. Lena, being a biologist, has noticed that the plant life inside Area X seems to be in a constant and accelerated state of mutation. One night, during a perimeter watch, she and Ventress are discussing the phenomenon, and the conversation turns toward human biology. We are all prone to self-destruction, the women surmise, since it’s programmed into our DNA. Aging itself is caused by too much mutation in our cells, leading to death. Just as this conversation gets going, a mutated beast that is scarier than any plant comes charging out of the darkness. It’s an adrenaline-surging moment in its own right, but it breaks the spell of what preceded it.
Garland does excel at creating a discomfiting mood and an ominous tone. He did so with his fabulous directorial debut, Ex Machina, as well as in his original screenplays for the Danny Boyle directed films 28 Days Later and Sunshine. In Annihilation, the captivating special effects have a lot to do with Garland’s success. For every scene that takes place inside Area X, there is a subtle – sometimes barely noticeable – manipulation of the light. The iridescence that shields everything inside Area X from outsiders is always present in the daylight once we're inside, but to differing degrees.
All of that is nothing compared to the hallucinatory final half-hour that Garland unleashes on the audience. The answer to what is causing The Shimmer, and what it means for the survival of humanity, dwarfs everything we’ve seen in the movie up to that point. And what we’ve seen includes an alligator cross-bred with a shark. (I promise that’s scarier and creepier than my description makes it sound.) What happens in the climax, though, is as mesmerizing as the Star Gate sequence in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Annihilation is reaching for some grand ideas, which is always the most exciting thing about the best science fiction. The movie doesn’t always succeed in exploring those ideas, but it’s damned thrilling to see someone as talented as Alex Garland put his vision on the screen.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- Just like Ex Machina, I could easily see myself returning to this movie again and again. It has a hypnotic quality to it. As interesting as the ideas in Annihilation are, though, I wish the movie had dug just a little deeper.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- A massive part of that hypnotic effect comes from the original score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. The unique synthesizer sounds they came up with for what I'm guessing is a voice late in the movie (you'll have to see it to know what I'm talking about) are eerie and unsettling.
- There is nothing less than first rate acting from all involved. Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny are all great as the mission team. I wasn't in love with Leigh's cold and distant performance at first, but a revelation late in the film about her character and time have made it grow on me. Oscar Issac is asked to pull off multiple emotional notes as Portman's husband, Kane. To the surprise of no one, he pulls it off brilliantly.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- Nothing but rapt attention during this one as we all got our minds blown.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- A Wrinkle in Time is one of those kids books I somehow missed growing up (along with Where the Wild Things Are). So, I'm going in to the Hollywood adaptation starring Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon knowing next to nothing about the plot. I'm excited to see what Ava DuVernay does with big budget fantasy after seeing (and loving) her historical biopic Selma, and her thoughtful, moving documentary 13th.