Here’s hoping that we have enough Star Wars and superhero movies in our yearly science-fiction regimen to satiate that base-level need, and that there’s room in our movie diets for something a little less visually flashy but far more thought provoking and mentally stimulating. The perfect cross section of these two approaches to sci fi was writer-director Alex Garland’s previous film Ex Machina, which tackled questions about humanity, manipulation and unbridled Ego.
But his second film as a director (Garland also wrote such modern classics as 28 Days Later… and Sunshine), Annihilation, is a different beast altogether in that it takes a largely scientific approach to a possible alien invasion, not unlike 2016’s Arrival (but without the communication angle).
A downright gloomy Natalie Portman plays Lena, a former soldier who switched gears to become a biologist (she’s now a professor at John Hopkins), while her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) stayed in the military and often carries out missions for long stretches that he can’t tell Lena about. The long absences and forbidden topics in their marriage have taken their toll, but they’re trying to make it work.
His latest mission seems to have an added silence about it, and when he vanishes for a year, she begin to fear the worst. He returns unannounced one day, a changed man with no memory of the details of where he’s been. Not long after he arrives, people in black vans arrive to take him away. This time, Lena is also allowed to accompany him.
Annihilation is told in a non-linear fashion, slowly pealing back the layers of story until a picture becomes more and more in focus. It reveals a handful of truly horrifying truths about both Kane’s mission, as well as a new one being arranged by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist, who is assembling an all-female group that includes an anthropologist, a surveyor, a linguist, and now Lena, who has both the military and scientific skills to be a great asset to the team. The other members of the team are played by Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”), Tuva Novotny, and Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok). They’re following in the footsteps of previous, all-military (and presumably all-male) missions inside what is being called an environmental disaster area, but in fact is the result of something dropping from space and landing near a coastal lighthouse. There, it created a fluid, shimmering wall around it that is expanding to the point where it has no taken over a small town and a nearby swamp, but will soon be much more of an issue.
Before Kane’s mysterious re-appearance, no one who has gone into The Shimmer has come back out, and it soon becomes clear that the growing field isn’t the danger, but rather something inside that is cause for concern. It turns out that the scientific team is able to figure out a great deal about what’s going on inside—species of plants and animals that have never been seen before, and even seem to be combinations of species that seem to be merging in a way that makes Lena uneasy. And by the end of their journey, this small group of humans begins to realize that within this structure, they are not at the top of the evolutionary chain by a long shot and that whatever is in the air is fast-forwarding genetic potential in ways never before seen.
Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer (adapted by Garland), Annihilation moves from this main story to various points in Lena’s life before and after her trip into The Shimmer. Technically the scenes we see inside are flashbacks from not long after she gets out, as she’s being interrogated by a man named Lomax (Benedict Wong), having her go through the day-by-day events, which is tough since she can’t remember the first three days inside at all.
But we also get flashbacks to her life with Kane right before he heads out for his mission into The Shimmer, a decision Lena questions since clearly there was a good chance he would not return. Her questioning his call to enter into such a journey sparks a fascinating conversation about the difference between being suicidal and being self-destructive. In fact, Annihilation works as much for the few moments of genuine terror (a monster that emits the screams of its previous victim is a particular nightmare generator) as it does for the fascinating conversations that occur as these women use their skill sets to deduce what is going on around them.
An early talk leads the team to believe that one of two things has been happening to the many previous missions before them: either something in The Shimmer is killing them or it is driving them crazy, causing them to kill each other—neither of which is a hopeful conclusion. (Of course, the unspoken third option is that it’s a combination of the two.) The cast here is exceptional, especially Jason Leigh who underplays Ventress perfectly, taking almost as much time to observe her fellow team members’ reactions to what happens to them as she does trying to figure out what is happening within The Shimmer. It’s also a blast seeing Rodriguez play someone who is driven slowly crazy, either by The Shimmer or her own paranoia.
As with a great deal of mystery-driven sci-fi, Annihilation’s build up is far more interesting than how it pulls it all together in the end. I freely admit that I am fine watching a film like this and not having all of its questions answered. This type of story provides the building blocks for a great discussion afterwards, a tradition that is dying all too quickly. The new norm has become: leave the movie, hop on social media with immediate love/hate reactions (gray areas are dead on the internet), and then defend those reactions to people who think you’re an idiot and/or socialist for feeling that way. But one of the reasons there is such nostalgia for films of the ’80s and early ’90s is that those were the last decades when actual discussions about movies happened in the immediate aftermath of seeing them. It’s why I don’ t read Twitter reactions to any movie; I’d rather have the conversation.
Annihilation is a conversation movie. It’s not a one-sentence-reaction work, and you should be aggressively disinterested in anyone who tries to give you one. You don’t even have to like it, but, especially lately, Garland is taking the time to make films that are about something that is more than what his characters are doing on screen. It’s about what they are going through, thinking about, and reacting to.
Portman is remarkably strong here because her pain and guilt is about so much more than a missing husband. And don’t get me wrong, the film is also insanely entertaining and scary at times; these things matter to Garland as well. Whatever monstrosities The Shimmer creates, it is also capable of summoning great beauty, and it’s this unique balance that makes the film so captivating. Go see it and then have drinks with your fellow moviegoers and talk about it. It will make for a far more rewarding experience.