Review: Annihilation (2018)


The marketing for Alex Garland’s Annihilation made it seem like a medium-budget sci-fi-tinged horror film, perhaps a spin on Alien with a mostly-female cast and a neat conceit: five people enter a mysterious zone that no one has returned from. However, the horror angle of the marketing disguises that the film is more the brainchild of 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Thing, and Stalker than just another sci-fi horror film.

In his second film as director, Garland has avoided the sophomore slump and created an ambitious sci-fi film that explores the relationship between creation and destruction and our propensity to self-destruct. Garland has also managed to make a terrifying film, although one that avoids typical jump scares or conventional horror tactics in its filmmaking. Annihilation is so bold in its ideas and confident in its execution that it’s sure to become a future classic of the sci-fi genre.

Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer (and apparently largely changed from the novel, which I haven’t read), Annihilation follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist working at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. When her presumed-dead husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), randomly appears at their home one year after disappearing on a mysterious military deployment, Lena and Kane are whisked away to a secure government facility in the Deep South. The facility is set up to monitor Area X (inspired by the Zone in Stalker), a national park of forest and swampland that’s come under the sway of an inexplicable substance known as the Shimmer, which surrounds a lighthouse and grows larger with each passing day. Kane is the sole survivor of the previous mission inside the Shimmer and is dying of internal organ failures as a result of the Shimmer’s bizarre natural properties. In an effort to save Kane, Lena volunteers to head into the Shimmer in the company of four other scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny) to find out what is causing the Shimmer and stop its spread.

In his debut feature, Ex Machina, Garland savvily explored what it means to be human by depicting the process of an A.I. undergoing a Turing Test. That film posited that our desire to survive at all costs and our manipulative nature are essential aspects of our humanity. Annihilation goes further in exploring personhood, although without an A.I. to run those ideas through. Instead, Garland uses the Shimmer to look at what makes people tick, as the Shimmer mutates or refracts everything and anything it comes into contact with. For instance, inside the Shimmer, an alligator will develop multiple rows of teeth like a shark and plants will germinate into flowers of multiple colours and sizes.

Garland uses this mutative quality of the Shimmer to conjure some remarkable images. For example, the barrier of the Shimmer looks like the rainbow inside a bubble or oil spill; once Lena and her team enter the Shimmer, there’s nary a shot that doesn’t have some rainbow or refracting light present within the frame. Beyond that, Garland uses the possibility of mutation to power the film’s horror. We enjoy inexplicable visions, like the sight of deer appearing in the forest with long flowering saplings for antlers. Garland also conjures some truly disturbing images and sounds.

As mentioned earlier, Garland doesn’t have scary monsters pop into the frame to provide the horror. Instead, he lets the power of his imagery and the creature designs supply the terror, using sound design and his actors to amplify the tension and convey just how monstrous and bone-chilling the imagery is. One scene features a mutated human corpse splayed out across the wall of an abandoned swimming pool, growing along the wall and disassembling all the skeletal components of the body as if a bathroom mold sprouted into the mutated limbs and bones of the monsters in The Thing. Other moments rely more on sound than imagery, such as an encounter with a mutated bear that utilizes human screams and off-screen space in ways that are genuinely agonizing (to say more would ruin the fun).

The mutations of the Shimmer also affect the people. Much of this effect is emotional, with the Shimmer exaggerating emotional states, such as depression, that the characters bring into the zone with them—Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr. Ventress, a psychologist, mentions that all five women have nothing to lose and entered the zone to fulfill their death wishes. But in other instances, the transformations are more physical and literal. People start to metamorphosize. Eyes start to shimmer, like they’re pools of water. Organs shift and move like snakes. Tattoos jump from one person to another. Later in the film, we see trees that resemble people, as if the plants have grown to mimic the shape of humans, or people have transformed into plants, slowing down until they literally put roots in the ground. Sapling sprouts on the arm of one character suggest the latter might be closer to the truth.

All of this culminates in the Lighthouse, where Garland goes full Stargate from 2001: A Space Odyssey as he depicts Lena’s transcendent encounter with the unknown. While much of the film is exposition-heavy, which is a common trait of most sci-fi stories, this final sequence loses any explanation. Garland lets images and (even more so) sound tell the story as Lena reaches the heart of the Shimmer. Portman’s award-winning work on Black Swan comes in handy as she’s required to essentially dance during a movement-heavy climax with a mirroring doppelganger-of-sorts. The ending brings to a boil the film’s simmering obsession with the symbiotic nature of creation and destruction, how life itself is one long process of dissolution. It asks what it means to grow, to create, and how we’re to comprehend a life where annihilation is inevitable.

Days later, Annihilation is still haunting me with its images and even more with its questions. Its ruminations on the meaning of destruction, whether in the emotional lives we lead or in the entropy of the universe around us, offer the sort of profound inquiries we expect of great works of science fiction. That it asks these questions while conjuring a visceral, imaginative journey into the heart of the unknown shows what a triumph this film is.

Ex Machina was a promising debut and a superior work of science-fiction, but this film is on a whole other level. Annihilation is a remarkable film.

9 out of 10

Annihilation (2018, USA/UK)

Written for the screen and directed by Alex Garland; based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer; starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Benedict Wong, and Oscar Isaac.