In his first film as a director – Ex Machina – Alex Garland knew exactly how to play his audience. Not only did he play his characters against each other through the knowledge each character had, he played his audience against their expectations for this type of film. With Annihilation, Garland throws all of his characters and his audience’s preconceived notions out the window, presenting the idea that a foreign entity from another place would be so baffling, so confounding, that we wouldn’t know where to begin in describing it. Fittingly, Garland has made a film that defies expectations of science fiction, creating a world that is equal parts eerie, stunning, and overpowering.
Based very loosely on the first of Jeff VanderMeer’s trilogy of novels, Garland – who also acts as writer – takes core details from the source material, keeps the unease that VanderMeer created and jumbles much of what is left. The result is far more concrete, yet inventive and inquisitive than VanderMeer’s original story.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology professor whose solider husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) leaves for a secret military operation and doesn’t return. A year later, Kane walks into their house, but his robotic, confused demeanor doesn’t seem like the warm, playful man that Lena once knew. After Kane starts coughing up blood, Lena starts to learn about the mysterious mission her husband was sent on.
Taken to a place known as Area X, Lena decides to join the latest team entering “The Shimmer,” a strange ecosystem where Kane was last seen. Also going into the unknown area are Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson) and Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), the first expedition comprised completely of women and scientists. With Kane struggling to stay alive, Lena goes into The Shimmer, hoping to find out what happened to her husband and maybe figure out a way to bring him back to his usual self.
Part Arrival, part The Last of Us, Annihilation immerses us into this twisty world of unusual plants and animals that shouldn’t exist, basking in the disconcerting beauty of The Shimmer. Garland’s Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors for Ex Machina create an entirely new world, where crystal-filled beaches and impossible flower arrangements coexist with horrific animal hybrids. Annihilation puts the dazzling and abominable hand-in-hand with each other. Especially in the film’s final minutes, the special effects are unsettling in how they come off both curious and outdated, as if Garland and his team made the final moments with ancient technology, to show how our society almost feels archaic within the walls of The Shimmer.
As was seen with Ex Machina, Garland, along with cinematographer Rob Hardy, are able to create some of the most beautiful visuals in modern cinema. Each shot is gorgeously composed, while the screenplay is sparse in its details. Garland could create an entire world with words in films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine, and with Annihilation, this is Garland’s first success in telling a story almost completely with the environments he puts in the frame.
Strangely, it’s Garland’s missteps in the screenplay, when he tries to add extra layers to his characters in Annihilation, when the film has its biggest problems. Garland’s screenplays are like experiments that he’s playing out in his scripts, often leaving character details secondary. But when Garland tries to explore Lena’s personal life without her husband, he writes the only scenes in Annihilation that don’t feel essential.
Annihilation’s finest gift is the debate and discussion that will arise from the film’s open-ended ideas that welcome interpretation. It’s easy to see Annihilation being discussed with the same fervor as Blade Runner or 2001, and Garland’s visualization of this story is not only reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky, John Carpenter, and Stanley Kubrick – among others – but proves that Garland may soon be considered along their ranks. With Annihilation, Garland has now made two of the finest science fiction films of the 2010s, and cements himself as one of the most exciting filmmakers in the genre.