Alex Garland’s (“Ex-Machina”) “Annihilation” is another successor of the sci-fi boom of the 2010’s in which we’ve seen inventive science fiction storytelling; ranging from Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” to Denis Villeneuve's “Arrival.” They're films that have learned from the godfathers of the genre, from names like Kubrick, Lynch, Scott, and Tarkovsky. They challenge the ideas of humanity with a narrative that stands on its own without the higher level storytelling, and “Annihilation” fits in that un-neat categories in which the narrative is structured with a jigsaw puzzled mentality with all of these films.
Providing a story that challenges its audience with skin-like structured storytelling in which each coating that is removed reveals something new, and something different, acting like something in constant mutation as it's narrative suggests. The film opens with a wide shot of what looks like a meteor striking a lighthouse; we cut to our protagonist Lena (Natalie Portman) being interrogated by men in hazmat suits. People watch the interrogation through a glass window and wear protective masks, despite not being in the same room as her. It’s a calm-like moment in which everyone seems stunned by her presence and simultaneously afraid, forcing us to invest and ask questions as to what this adds up to.
Cut to a time before this in which we learn that Lena (Natalie Portman) is a successful biologist, teaching at a university. She’s been stricken with grief with the absence of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), a marine who was selected for a top priority mission a year ago, a task he still hasn’t returned from and has been presumed to be KIA. She is a former marine as well, that’s how they met, a skill that comes in handy when she’s stunned to find the man she loves has returned home.
We flashback to a time before this in which we learn to feel the same confusion she feels, watching the couple enjoy a Sunday morning with laughter and interaction that displays a different character than we just saw on screen. Garland uses that flashback technique adequately, by the way, never doing it with flash or grandeur, just merely feeding us enough information to begin analyzing the events happening in front of us, while continuously staying one step ahead of us. It’s ingenious, as we cut back to the dead-eyed man sitting across from Lena (Natalie Portman), acting as the shell of a man she once knew. Is it PTSD? Great guess, but no, the story takes us in a far different direction as he begins to spit up blood.
In the midst of a tense ridden ambulance ride, a large group of government officials halts this transport, knocking out our heroine and transferring her to a place called Southern Reach, a research facility a few miles from the lighthouse we saw at the start of this film. She’s greeted by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the head honcho of this place. She calms down a very pissed off wife and introduces her to a rainbow-like wall on the horizon. It’s see through and disorientingly wave-like, they call it “the Shimmer,” a force field-like barrier that continues to expand along the shoreline, engulfing life and ecosystems within it. Every team sent into to study this phenomenon never made it back, except for Kane (Oscar Isaac).
The hypothesis is that something in there is killing off these people, or people go crazy and kill each other. Lena (Natalie Portman) is offered an opportunity to provide a solution to this hypothesis by going with Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a team of three other women: the brash Anya (Gina Rodriguez), the hesitant but bright Josie (Tessa Thompson), and the sweet Cass (Tuva Novotny). They will venture into this shimmer, each with different motivations, but Lena’s (Natalie Portman) is there to save the man she loves. Whose been placed in a coma at the facility in which each organ he has is beginning to fail at an alarming rate. The others are there for research, to find answers, or to find something worth dying over.
That is as much as I am willing to divulge without spoiling because nothing has been yet. The story is something miraculous in that way in which each threshold crossed in the woods leads to something more potent, more poignant, and more terrifying than the last. It’s a properly written sci-fi narrative that riddles you with unanswered questions, philosophical themes, and a narrative that builds to a remarkable crescendo. Based on Jeff Vandermeer’s novel, Garland exhumes as much as he can from this story. Crossing a multitude of genres in the process as the film mutates at a rigorous rate like that of the organisms lurking inside of “The Shimmer,” transforming from a mystery riddled sci-fi feature to a thrilling horror flick with science-based realism.
Garland balances this constant fret of something lurking within these woods with a desire for voyeurism, disorienting while grounded is the best way to describe it. It could quickly turn into a straight to DVD creature feature involving aliens or something even dumber, but it remains steadily focused. Sucking you into its world, and hypnotizing you with its artistically stunning cinematography by Rob Hardy that works with a score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury in such a dramatic fashion that it has a physical effect on you.
Leaving you with this feeling of confusion and bewilderment that mimics that sensation of hypnotization or being lost in deep thought. It’s an invigorating experience to be apart of; it's an exercise in maintaining tone and keeping it's surprises apart of that tone. Introducing new members of its story with a resemblance that never feels outlandish or misplaced, but consistent with everything occurring in this investigation of humanity. The visual language is something that echoes that, it subverts our expectations at every turn, continually rebutting what every theory you have formed, it's an ambitious idea that feeds discourse. There’s a centerpiece that I can’t wait for each of my readers to discover that is quite possibly one of the most terrifying things I have seen on the silver screen in years. It’s designed and directed with such brilliance that it awes me but remains to be something of a nightmare, that’s filmmaking genius of the highest order.
There are moments where this complicated story has to stop and explain itself to those of us falling behind, and those moments feel misplaced and make the whole magic act feel staged. It’s unlike that of “Blade Runner 2049” in which these scenes don’t keep you interested, they distract, and they stick out like a sore thumb. The final act is also something that stumps me more than anything else, it's one that is sure to rub audiences the wrong way, but it's wrapped with such inherent intricacies that it’s dazzling to watch. I can’t make sense of it, but I know there something important about it, there has to be, because Garland fabricates the film in that way, making the journey of this film feel just as prominent as the destination. He manifests some of his most striking visuals in those final moments, moments that send me into a frenzy with questions that remind me of my experiences of watching films like “2001” and “Blade Runner.”
Garland has crafted something special that is worth witnessing, an ambitious and challenging piece of work from an artist that continues to surprise. It’s not an easy film to sit through or to discuss; it divides its audience into different camps of thought. It’s a narrative that dissects hefty topics such as self-destruction, evolution, biology, human makeup, codependency, what scares us the most, and the building blocks that make something evil, asking us to define what makes it that way.
Terrifying us with the idea of being scared of our own bodies, something we take pride in and invest time into maintaining. “Annihilation” is a film that lingers in both your dreams and nightmares, being a marriage of the two as something worth discovering that might also send shivers down your spine. It will spark discomfort and arguments for decades to come, don’t miss it.