1. Annihilation is a movie that’s impossible to shake. Like the characters who find themselves both exploring the world of the film and inexplicably trapped by it, you’ll find yourself questioning yourself throughout, wondering whether what you’re watching can possibly be real, whether maybe you’re going a little insane yourself. The film is a near-impossible bank shot by Ex-Machina filmmaker Alex Garland, a would-be science fiction actioner that slowly reveals itself to be a mindf-ck in just about every possible way, a film that wants you to invest in its universe yet never gives you any terra firma to orient yourself. This is a film that wants to make you feel as confused and terrified as the characters you’re watching. In this, it is unquestionably successful.
2. The story starts simply enough. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology professor and a former soldier whose husband, Cain (Oscar Isaac), failed to come back from a mysterious mission. One day, out of nowhere, he just shows up at their home, but he’s vacant, lost and, suddenly, suffering massive organ failure. The ambulance is intercepted by a shadowy government group led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who explains that Cain was the first person to return from an area called The Shimmer, an ever-expanding barrier that no scientist has been able to explain but is in danger of overtaking everything in its path. Lena, along with a group of female scientists and explorers, decides to head into The Shimmer to find Cain. And that—the moment they walk into The Shimmer—is the last time their lives, or the movie, makes any sort of rational, linear sense.
3. But my, what things they see there! The area inside The Shimmer—which we see has been caused by some sort of meteor, or something falling from the cosmos—serves as a sort of prism for all life that comes inside it, but in a way that’s actually biological rather than just visual. It bends and mutates everything, so that you see, say, a deer with the branches of a tree as antlers, or grass with mushrooms growing out of it. The marshland where the meteor hit leads to images that are both breathtaking, like a bridge covered in vastly multicolored flora, and truly horrifying, like a massive alligator with sharks teeth or, later, a monstrous bear with the face of a different, equally hideous beast that collects the screams of those it has eaten. (Yeah, it’s quite a thing.) Meanwhile, the mutation that’s taking place around them is also going on at a cellular level; at one point, Lena looks at her own blood under a microscope and realizes she, herself, is changing in a way she cannot understand or predict. And the place that’s changing the most is her mind.
4. The movie throws us into this deep end immediately, with no warning, and it doesn’t provide us any way to swim to shore. What are we to think of all we are witnessing? How much of it can we trust? The crew comes across an old videotape left by Cain and his comrades for them to find, and its images are confusing and impossible. Is it real? Are they imagining all of this? At one point, Dr. Ventress, who has her own secrets to hide, notes that she is changing so quickly that she must hurry on her journey to her destination “so I am not a different person when I get there.” But that’s what happens inside The Shimmer: You change so dramatically, so quickly, you don’t know who are you, let alone who everyone else is or what you’re trying to do there. Garland’s true achievement is to keep the audience in the same state. You’re as lost as they are.
5. This is a risky proposition for a director, particularly with a big studio movie with big stars like this one; this is a movie that becomes more confusing and disorienting as it goes along, not less. This is not a movie that is looking to solve its mysteries for you, and that can be off-putting if you’re not willing to meet it halfway. Garland mesmerizes with his visuals, but he wants you to be off-balance, to experience this world the way Lena and everyone else is experiencing it. Like the alien (I think?) of his movie, Garland is not a malevolent presence; he is simply an observer of this world, one who follows it to every possible permutation, logical or otherwise. It’s difficult to explain Annihilation, which is a large reason for its being. This is a film about loss, and regret, and the sensation that the world is constantly crumbling and being rearranged all around you every possible second. The world of Annihilation looks familiar, and only at first; reality is fluid, and ungraspable. It can feel a little like our current reality in that way. Like Lena and poor doomed Dr. Ventress, the person you are by the end of Annihilation may be different than the one you were when this transfixing, hypnotic journey began.
Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Dorothy Blyskal
Starring: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez
Release Date: February 23, 2018
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.