Hot Take: Alex Garland continues to deliver. While not as good as Ex Machina, Annihilation does enough to impress and unnerve at times.
Visually, Annihilation is something special. From writer/director Alex Garland (writer/director of Ex Machina and writer of 28 Days Later), based on the first of a series of novels called the Southern Reach Trilogy from Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation is a creepy science fiction tale with enough elements of horror sprinkled through it to give you at least a nightmare or two and tension thicker than a brick. Garland has already proven to have a knack for these types of films — ones with a slant on the human condition and humanity in general — on the big screen and while Annihilation doesn’t achieve the level of excellence that Ex Machina did (nor 28 Days Later for that matter), the end result is a solid entry into the science fiction genre and one that has to make you a little curious about what might follow if the rest of this trilogy were to come to fruition.
Annihilation opens with Lena (Natalie Portman) in a quarantined debriefing about an expedition into Area X which lasted months but only seemed like days to Lena. She appears to be the only survivor of the mission she was on. The story then flashes back to Lena’s life prior to the mission as a professor of cellular biology and former military member who was mourning the alleged loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who left for a secret mission never to return. Shockingly, Kane shows up out of the blue but has very little memory of what happened, becomes ill and must be rushed to the hospital. On their way to the hospital, a government agency known as the Southern Reach intercepts the ambulance and takes Lena and Kane to their base. There, Lena meets Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and learns of a mission into Area X which is where her husband had disappeared for 12 months. Lena decides to join the mission and accompany the rest of the crew — Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic, Josie (Tessa Thompson), a physicist, and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), a geologist and surveyor — in an attempt to discover what exactly is happening inside The Shimmer in Area X.
This sets the tone for a very mysterious and unusual tale that is much smarter than your average sci-fi fare. Actually, it might be too intelligent for its own good as some of the subplots create a decent amount of thought which can actually distract from the movie itself. It gets weird… and that’s a good thing. Annihilation stands out as Garland’s deliberate pacing creates a sense of dread at times and a baseline of uneasiness that lasts throughout the film. I was as confused as the characters on screen which made them completely relatable as they attempted to process what was happening around them. Some who don’t like to be in the dark might be put off by this approach, especially if they fail to connect with any of the characters on screen. One downside to all of this is that while Portman’s Lena is the central character, this discounts the other 5 members of the mission who are arguably as interesting if not more than Lena. It’s nothing against Portman who delivers a solid performance but so do the rest of the cast here and strong enough performances that you want to spend equal time getting to know them even if they’re eventually going to meet their demise.
Annihilation is not your everyday sci-fi/horror flick. Some will say it’s not scary enough but there’s at least one scene that left me thinking I wasn’t going to sleep for days after living through it. Describing it as living through it is accurate as Garland shows the ability to put you side-by-side with these characters as they go through these trials and tribulations to the point where you almost feel there. It’s less voyeuristic and more immersive than usual and similar to what he’s been able to pull off in previous efforts. It’s unlikely to go over too big at the box office as films which add a more cerebral and less guns a blazin’ approach have a habit of taking the hit at the ticket booth. The solid reviews from critics will likely be muted by lukewarm word of mouth as typically happens with films scoring a C from CinemaScore usually receive.
If smart sci-fi is your cup of tea then Annihilation is one you’ll want to take in. If a challenging non-closure ending is something that might not settle with you, though, you might veer away. It’s tricky here to completely recommend as the film’s complexities can turn off the average moviegoer. However, if you’re more of a film aficionado, especially if you’ve been tracking and enjoying Alex Garland’s ascension to bigger budget Hollywood flicks, you should find time in your schedule to immerse yourself in Annihilation.
Smart, simmering sci-fi with more questions than answers and a few horrific scenes to screw with your psyche sounds right up your alley.
You’re more of a Starship Troopers sci-fi kind of guy (or girl).