Jennifer Jason Leigh
1 Hr., 55 Mins.
Annihilation February 23, 2018
ou can tell that the writer-director Alex Garland has been waiting his entire career to make a movie like Annihilation, a kaleidoscopic and potentially polarizing sci-fi horror show. For nearly 15 years, he’s worked almost exclusively on a small scale: he made his screenwriting debut with the iconic zombie flick 28 Days Later and later made his first foray in directing with 2015’s enigmatic and canny Ex Machina. Acclaimed but commercially ignored films like Never Let Me Go (2010) and Dredd (2012) also pepper his filmography.
Annihilation changes things. Unlimited money and big stars are at Garland’s beck and call; studio heads seem to think his product his commercially viable this time around. After an American wide release, which starts this weekend, the film will eventually head to Netflix for international distribution.
Make no mistake: this movie has plenty characteristics that will appeal to the consumers who saw its adverts and thought it might be for them. This is ambitious, momentous science fiction, packed full of visual splendor and sweeping ideas. But trailers and TV spots have, in a way, been misleading. Movie execs have tried tricking the populace into thinking they’re walking into a female-led Predator (1987) when the product’s relatively alienating and idiosyncratic, akin to something as brazenly cerebral as Blade Runner 2049 (2017).
I loved it: although it’s conceptually ungraspable and structurally knotty, I find Annihilation difficult in the best of ways. It’s the sort of unapologetic mind-bender whose mysteries don’t lose their luster after you exit the theater.
But because it’s not exactly the movie that was advertised – and because it fuses Lynch-style esoterica and Kubrickian-level aspiration without realizing how commercially dubious that is – it’s bound to be divisive. Case in point: at the screening I attended, the front half of the theater enthusiastically clapped when the end credits started rolling while the majority of those sitting behind me loudly expressed disdain. “I hated that,” seethed the friend I invited.
Much of how you react to it depends on how interesting you find its storyline, which is byzantine and slow to unravel. Though most of Annihilation orbits around the personal story of a sad-eyed biologist named Lena (Natalie Portman, courageous), it is primarily about a recent ecological disaster and the struggles scientists have faced trying to learn more about it.
In few years before the film’s events, a meteor crashed on the coast of Florida and created “the shimmer,” an expanding zone that has rendered everything inside genetically mutated in such ways that have proved impossible to understand. The military types who’ve ventured inside have been violently killed, with little explanation as to how or why.
When the film opens, Lena’s soldier husband (Oscar Isaac) returns home after presumably spending a year in the shimmer. But both his mind and soul seem to be gone, and only minutes after reuniting does he face a medical crisis.
After he’s hospitalized, Lena is forcibly whisked away by the people who recruited her spouse for the mission in the first place, presumptively to figure out how much she might know about the shimmer and if she poses a threat to the confidentiality of what’s been discovered thus far.
But things shift rather quickly. Not long after coming into contact with the brittle Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, impeccable), who planned the previous unsuccessful undertaking, Lena is enlisted to help out on the next expedition. She is joined by Ventress, whose curiosity’s gotten the best of her, and a trio of other scientific minds (Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Gina Rodriguez, all riveting). Predictably, the shimmer gets more dangerous – and more intriguing – as they creep inside.
The movie’s final reveal, which more or less explains what exactly the shimmer does to the people and creatures who dare to live inside, is hardly predictable – and plenty will find it baffling and rather unsatisfying. But one of the reasons Annihilation works so well has to do with how disinterested it is in definitives: it is more invested in the mysteries of the universe, and ponders a world in which the population is forced to face the otherworldly head-on.
Since it so prominently echoes movies like Under the Skin and Mother!, visceral works of commercial avant garde fatigued by logic, the preference for the abstract will prove disengaging and frustrating for some. But those willing to let its mysteries overpower them just might find themselves in the presence of one of the most spellbinding, singular science fiction movies of the decade. A
This review also appeared in The Daily.