If you saw the trailer for Annihilation and got hyped to watch Natalie Portman spend the movie kicking ass with a machine gun, mowing down monsters while dispensing action-movie cliches, you won’t get what you want. If you read Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, on which the movie is based, and expected a faithful adaptation of that meditative, brooding work, you too will not find what you’re seeking. Annihilation, which comes out today, is its own beast, concerned with its own suite of moral and philosophical questions, and it’s a better (albeit less marketable) movie for its inscrutability.
Annihilation follows the rough structure of VanderMeer’s book, though director Alex Garland ultimately takes the story somewhere else. Somewhere utterly terrifying, loving, and heartbreaking. VanderMeer’s book presents questions about the unknowability of ourselves and the natural world around us in a spaced-out, dreamlike narrative. Garland seizes on these same questions, but ratchets up the intensity and the horror to a thrilling and genuinely unsettling degree.
***Minor spoilers to follow, though I won’t ruin everything***
The film tells the story of Lena, a biologist played by Portman, whose husband Kane has been missing for a year since embarking on a top-secret mission. He turns back up at her house as a husk of himself, with no memory of what he did or who she is, and a serious illness to boot. Eventually Lena is told that Kane (who’s played by Oscar Isaac) entered a mysterious realm somewhere on the Gulf Coast known as the Shimmer, or Area X, at the behest of a clandestine government agency known as the Southern Reach. Three years before the events of Annihilation, a meteor struck a lighthouse and something began to radiate out from the impact zone, scrambling the biology of the surrounding area and swallowing anything that enters, never to spit it back out. Nobody knows what happens in the Shimmer because nothing gets out alive.
Until Kane does, even if he’s barely alive. Naturally, Lena joins an expedition into the Shimmer to discover what lies at the dark heart of the deadly, inhospitable zone. If you’ve seen Garland’s first film, Ex Machina, then you’re no doubt familiar with his ability to weave together the dread and thrill of the unknown. When Lena leads a well-considered ensemble cast of lady scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tess Thompson, and Tuva Novotny) towards certain death, the movie truly shines. You know that something is going to go terribly wrong, but Area X is rendered with a gorgeous hypercolorized splendor. Even after seeing the jump scares that await the five scientists in the trailer (which summarizes pretty much every action sequence in the film), you have no idea exactly what waits for the expedition, and the push deeper into the Shimmer is enthralling as it is terrifying. It’s like a Legend Of Zelda game set in hell, basically.
Annihilation is a spiritual cousin of many ambitious, auteurist sci-fi films of the 2010s, most notably Upstream Color, Arrival, and Under The Skin. It’s going to get compared to Arrival forever (though its more like Under The Skin than any of those other two movies), and that’s because the stories are neat inverses of one another. Both feature scientists who’ve lost someone studying the unknown, and while Arrival caps off a somewhat leaden middle third with a satisfying twist ending, Annihilation works best when its asking questions. It doesn’t quite stick the landing.
And that’s fine, honestly, since those questions are so compelling, and Garland’s way of posing them is unflinching. As The Outline’s Teo Bugbee noted, Annihilation trades in a unique sort of body horror, where the all-female cast gets all Cronenberged out without having to fall into the usual cinematic trap that reduces female bodies to birth machines. There is gore here (good lord, the scene they’re watching on the video camera in the top of the post) and it’s genuinely unsettling. Nature is presented as something both life-affirming and actively evil, something that will rip your body in half from within, only to create something stunning with your remains. There’s a malignancy at the heart of the Shimmer, and it destroys each scientist differently.
But while VanderMeer’s novel is more about Lena’s journey towards understanding herself and the world around her, Annihilation, the movie, is about relationships. Specifically, Lena and Kane’s marriage, and the ways that two people change and grow as the bonds between and torn asunder and mended. The journey into the Shimmer is an inward journey for Lena, and while I won’t say what she finds in the lighthouse, it’s something that finally allows her to connect to Kane, even if bridging that gap involves something terrifying.
It’s a decent allegory, though, like many sci-fi movies, Annihilation is more compelling when it asks questions than when it answers them. The creepiness continues to build throughout, and the shit I saw in the lighthouse unsettled me more than almost anything I’ve seen in a movie in years. Garland is a master of subtlety, and Portman is a the perfect subject, as the horror and spectral mystery of the Shimmer could devolve into nonsense in less capable hands. Annihilation is, to be clear, not a particularly fun movie, and there’s almost nothing to laugh at. It doesn’t seem like the sort of movie that will make hundreds of millions of dollars, though the same mournfulness that made the studio freak out and try to change a bunch of the movie is ultimately a positive. Annihilation won’t be a hit, but it is an acutely rewarding movie.