Written and directed by Alex Garland
Have you ever walked out of a theater and thought to yourself, “That was more than just a movie. That was an experience!“? It’s only happened to me a handful of times, the last one I remember being Mad Max: Fury Road. Last night that sensation washed over me as the credits for Annihilation began their crawl after a near two-hour runtime. I remained in my seat until every name slipped by before I found it within myself to stand up and leave the theater. All I could think was, “I’ve just witnessed something incredible.”
An adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s first book in his The Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation follows Lena (Portman), an ex-soldier-turned-biologist professor at Johns Hopkins whose husband, Kane (Isaac), has been missing for a year after leaving on a covert mission about which Lena has been able to get zero information. When Kane mysteriously returns and almost immediately falls gravely ill, Lena finds herself in a secret government facility that is monitoring a strange and potentially cataclysmic phenomenon: a strange shimmering dome that appeared in a remote region after a meteorite landing, a dome that grows larger with each passing day. Realizing that the answer to her husband’s malady may very well lie within that area, Lena joins four other women as they embark on an expedition into what is called “Area X.” However, it’s quickly realized that nothing is quite what it seems to be and that the laws of nature no longer apply.
The majesty of Annihilation is the time it takes to build the story and to ramp up the tension. While it has no problem with frenetic scenes, the film moves at an almost poetic pace, every moment adding something to the overarching narrative. From showing the relationship between Lena and Kane to the interactions among the five women who venture into “Area X” to the action sequences, every part of the movie feels necessary. This is even seen in the climax of the film, which is a 10-minute scene that features almost zero dialogue and yet feels fraught with danger.
Visually, the movie is absolutely gorgeous. The jungle that takes up most of Area X is lush and beautiful. Crepuscular rays break through the leaves and tease a rainbow iridescence thanks to the “shimmer.” A wide variety of flowers impossibly blossom from the same source, a result of the genetic mutations occurring within the dome. Strange fungal patterns explode across the walls of abandoned buildings, their patterns a tumorous cornucopia of colors and textures. Even when the movie brings gore into the equation, it does so with an artist’s gaze. Without ruining the moment, there is a scene where the team comes across the body of a man from a previous expedition. For as macabre as the visual was, it was equally entrancing, calling to mind the strangely beautiful designs of the “clickers” from The Last of Us.
Each setting in the story has a visual style that sets it apart from one another but still feels connected. The governmental facility feels cold and sterile while the jungles of Area X are warm and verdant. As the team ventures further into the contaminated zone, we are taken to the beach next to the lighthouse that acts as “ground zero” for the mysterious event. Here we see trees made of crystal and bone-white roots clinging to the nautical beacon. In this third act, we’re taken into the basement of the lighthouse, which can only be described as Giger-esque, with strange ribbed walls that feel like they pulsate with a life of their own.
The characters of Annihilation feel real, and the exposition given doesn’t feel forced. When Lena is rowing a boat with Cass, the sharing of information feels like camaraderie, not awkward plot reveals. Additionally, no character is without his/her flaws. Even Lena has her own issues that burden her with guilt, making her journey into Area X all the more understandable. As the stress of the mission wears on these women, the seeds of distrust begin germinating into deadly situations that have very real consequences, including the appearance of a bear that would be right at home in the Silent Hill universe. Also, kudos to Garland for writing the film in such a way where the gender roles not only feel natural but are never focused on in a disingenuous manner.
Musically, Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, who scored Garland’s previous film Ex Machina, create a soundtrack that is atmospheric, haunting, and hypnotizing. The music elevates the dreamy phantasmagoria of the film without overpowering any scene. Meanwhile, cinematographer Rob Hardy, who also worked on Ex Machina, helps create a film where nearly every frame is a work of art.
Those entering Annihilation expecting a clearly defined sci-fi/horror offering will be disappointed. There is certainly a great deal of both to be had, but the movie doesn’t want to offer something fleeting. Instead, it uses those genres as a foundation to create a film that will stay with viewers long after they leave the theater. When you get to the core of Annihilation, it’s a body horror film that pays homage to the work of David Cronenberg while carving an entirely new path of its own. Just don’t expect it to hold your hand and answer all of its mysteries. Some questions are left for you to see through on your own.
I do not say this lightly, but I truly believe that Alex Garland has offered audiences one of the best genre films in recent years.
Annihilation is a bold, gorgeous, and stunning melting pot of horror, sci-fi, and drama, culminating in one of the most fascinating films I’ve seen this decade.