On its surface, Annihilation is a genre film. It’s a monster movie or an alien encounter movie. And yes, there are elements of The Thing and Alien in Annihilation. But really, the film is intellectual genre. It’s Apocalypse Now but without the backdrop of Vietnam.
And the five brave (Or psychotic) women tasked with walking into the heart of darkness include a biologist, anthropologist, psychologist, surveyor and linguist. Some of them have military experience, but they’re not soldiers. Their mission is to investigate and research Area X.
Originally just another place in the south, Area X is now a quarantined zone after something fell from the sky and struck a lighthouse. Now the surrounding area is encased by an unknown surface that is slowly expanding. They call the area inside; the Shimmer.
Surface is a key word to remember when thinking about the film. Director Alex Garland makes it a point to visualize certain things we’ve seen before, only he presents it behind the veneer of something either sinister or beautiful or perhaps both. A couple holds hands, but he shoots it through a glass full of water which makes their fingers look like worms. In another scene, the two are embracing, but through a decontamination room.
That dichotomy: beautiful and disturbing, perfectly encapsulates Annihilation.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, the biologist who is a last-minute addition to the expedition. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), has suddenly remerged from the Shimmer. He’s the only person to ever come back alive. But he’s not quite the same person Lena remembers and after he becomes ill, Lena agrees to go into the Shimmer to not only discover what’s inside, but perhaps find answers to what’s really going on with her husband.
The film is based on a book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. The author wrote the novel after a dream he had. And that’s a great way to describe the book. A dream you can’t quite remember.
The book is dense, cerebral and unlike anything I’ve ever read. The thought of a film adaptation seemed unfathomable. But Garland has managed to put his own stamp on the material. Annihilation is a weird, hallucinogenic, meta-physical trip where nothing is quite what it seems. Once our team enters the Shimmer, the world is a serene, ecological miracle full of strange and beautiful things.
There are creatures that look like deer with flowers growing on their antlers. Ice trees sprouting from the ground near the coastline and foliage forming into what look like people. Kind of like the bodies permanently preserved in ash at Pompeii.
But there’s an antithesis to this serenity. Compasses are useless, they can’t communicate with anyone outside of the Shimmer and there are mutated crocodiles. The environment isn’t the only thing they have to worry about.
As the film progresses, each of our characters begin to break down in their own way. Each of them is damaged, and the façade they’ve carried with them in the outside world is useless in the Shimmer.
Perhaps a better title is self-destruction. Portman has a unique quality of showing poise and a sense of control, but you see glimpses of damage in her that begin to peal away. She’s a strong, capable character, but she’s also vulnerable.
The other characters have far less to do. Garland assembles a terrific cast of actors including Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Gina Rodriguez, but none of them are given enough time to develop.
This is Portman’s film and at the heart of the movie is a love story between her and Isaac’s character. The film occasionally provides flashbacks to their time together and it’s sweet and innocent. It’s also necessary to provide her with motivation as the film nears its end.
Annihilation is an immersive experience. Garland requires participation in an explicit way from the audience that makes you feel like you’re there with the team. The movie is largely a slow burn. But there are a few disturbing sequences including the team watching a video made from inside the Shimmer and a truly terrifying sequence at night in an abandoned house. Let’s just say it involves a mutated bear.
As the third act progresses, the film becomes even more unpredictable. Garland has no interest in answering questions. His focus is atmosphere.
The juxtaposition of beauty and horror is present throughout the film, but it is best represented in the final shot which manages to be comforting and haunting. It stays with you long after the film is over like an infection.