Adapting the first of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation, writer-director Alex Garland continues his ascent as one of science fiction’s most vital cinematic voices. The mastermind behind Ex Machina refuses to allow his ambitious sci-fi film to fall into any conventional sense, relying on situations and scenarios that unpredictable and sometimes unsatisfying. There’s something incredibly rare about the scope and scale of Annihilation and its daringness in defying audience expectations that even if I didn’t love the film I can’t help but immensely respect its boldness.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology professor at John Hopkins University. When we first see her, she’s explaining the nature of cellular reproduction to her students, using cancer cells as an example. Lena has been in mourning for a while now. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), a Special Forces soldier, has been presumed dead in action for nearly a year. One fateful evening, seemingly out of the blue, Kane returns to the home that he shared with Lena. Something is quite off, though, and it’s not long before the once-missing soldier is stricken with organ failure. Before the ambulance can get him to the hospital, black SUVs with heavily armored agents that take the ailing Kane and Lena to a secretive base.
The secretive base is just outside what’s called “The Shimmer,” a mysterious energy field that has slowly engulfed a section of the American coast. Soldiers have explored the area and only Kane was able to emerge from the Shimmer. Another expedition is ready to enter the Shimmer, led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and joined by Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). Lena will join this team of female scientists in entering this bizarre and unknown phenomenon with the hopes of reaching the epicenter of the Shimmer, a lighthouse on the coastline. However, nothing is going to operate by the laws that govern our world.
Because of the narrative framing device that Garland employs, there’s no suspense as to the fate of the characters in Annihilation. We know that Lena has made it out on the other side because we’re witness to her being interrogated Lomax (Benedict Wong) about the events which occurred. (This, mind you, is not a spoiler, it’s in the establishing scenes of the film’s opening.) It’s a novel way to frame the story, taking it away from the simplistic survival tale about individuals and more about the phenomenon occurring within the Shimmer and how it affects life in unsettling and unbelievable ways.
The void where typical suspense would lie is instead filled with a wild unpredictability that defies expectations. Sure, Garland and the characters tell you the fate of the characters at the start, but it’s the journey and the obstacles along the way that keep you engaged and guessing. It also affords Garland to utilize a certain playfulness with his pacing, often lulling the audience into a sense of complacency before exploding with shocking, surprising moments that seemingly come out of left field.
Between the creatures and the bizarre landscapes within the Shimmer, Annihilation is filled with striking and horrific visuals unlike any science fiction film of recent memory. There’s an unusual use of color thanks to plenty of digital flourishes added to Rob Hardy’s cinematography. Despite its inventive use of color, sometimes Hardy’s images are incredibly dark and somewhat off-kilter, a choice which is undoubtedly intentional but sometimes more distracting than unsettling.
I can’t say with any certainty that Annihilation always works to the level of its lofty ambitions, but its commitment to its concept and execution is daring and never once tries to meet simple audience expectations. When Annihilation works, it works on a level rarely seen in modern science fiction and continues to establish Alex Garland as one of the best minds bringing sci-fi to the screen in the modern era. Annihilation plays with form and structure in clever ways that only amplify the more offbeat tics that Garland brings to his sci-fi tale. Even though aspects of Annihilation left me cold, the themes that Alex Garland has swirling around the film will stay in my mind for days, if not weeks, to come, and that’s something that is desperately needed more in science fiction than simple by-the-numbers spectacle.