There are moments in Alex Garland’s Annihilation where it becomes painfully clear why Paramount was scared enough by this film and its prospects at the box office that they offloaded it on Netflix, hoping to potentially avoid the same kind of catastrophic fate mother! suffered with audiences.
To put it frankly, this is the kind of movie that has well-regarded film critics like Scott Tobias telling their readers to go to empty showings during the day so that they can experience it without having to deal with the jeers of folks who’d have been better off going to Game Night.
A thematic blend of Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Carpenter’s The Thing endowed with the stylistic flourishes of a Chris Cunningham-directed Bjork video and all of the moral and logistical ambiguity of such, this sci-fi fever dream is most decidedly the kind of anti-commercial art that frightens suits to death and alienates the casual viewer. It’s also straight-up fantastic, from the gorgeous cinematography and otherworldly art design, to the compelling and painfully tragic writing guiding its game and capable cast, to its instantly meme-worthy score. It’s a wonder that this thing is seeing a release on as many screens that it is, perhaps earned by the success Garland found with the well-received Ex Machina, but this is the kind of deeply upsetting and bold filmmaking that eluded that particular film (for me, y’all, don’t send me emails).
Adapted from the novel by Jeff VanderMeer (though, as a warning to fans of the novel, Garland has changed it extensively), Annihilation begins with a screaming coming across the sky. It has happened before — hundreds of thousands of times a year, in fact, when debris enters the atmosphere or meteorites strike the earth — but there is nothing to compare it to. It strikes a lighthouse on the Florida coast, and begins to transform the landscape into something utterly alien, surrounded by a force-field dubbed the Shimmer by the Southern Reach, government first responders looking to contain the spread of the area. And it is most definitely spreading. Across the country, a biologist (Natalie Portman) is utterly stunned to find her husband (Oscar Issac) who she and others presumed dead, standing in her bedroom, unaware of who he was in the past beyond slight hints of memories. His organs begin to fail, and, on the way to the hospital, their ambulance is pulled over by a SWAT team, and they’re both taken away to a base near the effected area.
A psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) seemingly in charge of the ongoing operations near the Shimmer, briefs the biologist about what happened to her husband: He was once a member of a expeditionary force that went into the Shimmer in order to study it, and he was the only person to ever come back. In order to find answers about what happened to her husband, the biologist joins another group heading into the Shimmer, this time composed entirely of women: Her, the psychologist, an EMT (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist (Tessa Thompson) and an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny). Armed with rifles and survival gear, they cross over into the altered wetlands and find a world transformed. And only Portman returns. Her exit interview by a hazmat suit-clad scientist (Benedict Wong) serves as our entryway into her story in the land turned upside down.
The Shimmer comes from a tradition as old as time itself, where a character of group of characters goes through the looking glass in order to experience the world and themselves anew, though it’s been rarely rendered as horrifyingly and as cinematically. I kept seeing emulsion in the Shimmer’s array of colors and the way that it impacts the lighting in the place itself as if it were celluloid as it flows through a projector, and I couldn’t help but doing that thing that critics do where they assume that every movie is about the experience of watching movies itself. But it feels apt here, given Portman’s arc, and given how perspective shifts once we start to see things through a lens.
The things that Garland shows us are abominable in a similar way that Carpenter so aptly captured in his masterwork, where the world is turned upside down and captured in a refracted way: Flowers sprout from the horns of deer, decomposing monsters wander around the lush landscape, and crystal trees adorn a shoreline transformed into a sand-stricken forest. I can’t even tell you the best details, given how important they are to the resolution to the film, but they are the kind of core-shakingly disturbing and sublime details that make you wonder how a thing manages to move. They’re rooted in the horrors of nature — mold blooms, decomposition — prior to the abandonment of the real entirely in the final act, and the hallucinogenic horror and majesty of the ecosystem is something that will endure through the years.
As for what’s behind that alien transformation, don’t expect any solid answers beyond some casual guesses from the characters- some that appear to be on the money, others that feel specious and rooted in a primal fear- and that will undoubtedly infuriate some people. I didn’t particularly mind it so much, given how etherial and weird the Shimmer and how it seemed to defy easy codification at every turn and how these expeditions are often more about the characters rather than the place itself. Portman’s arc, pushed forward by purposeful contrivance, eventually crystalizes into something well worth the initial skepticism, and the rest of the cast reveal themselves in a methodical manner as well. Leigh’s psychologist has a significantly important character note dropped in the future by Wong’s evaluator, one that colors her actions up until that point in a very different shade than we’d originally had read, but it makes sense, given how closed-off she is from the rest of the group. Rodriguez is perhaps the most dynamic of all of the characters, with her openness about her fears and her panics at any given point (she reminded me of Hudson in Aliens until the moment when she’s finally pushed too far), and Thompson is reserved and quiet until she becomes utterly etherial and transcendent. Hell, even Issac manages to make an indelible impression, despite his limited screen time, and he also happens to have one of the most explosive moments in the film following the revelations about his character that unfold in the final act.
They are all given satisfactory ends, if you’re willing to consider the few details that are slipped to us through spoken dialogue and imagery, and it’s astonishing how well Garland manages to tie his threads together (and how excellently his structure unnerves and divides, with the stately bureaucracy of regulated civilization, where people and places collapse as a form of genetically planned obsolescence and the wild and unregulated overgrowth of the Shimmer itself). It’s an incredible evolution of his skills as a filmmaker, and he’s found the freedom to be shaggy and odd, which his prior directorial effort never had a chance of being, given the tightly-wound mechanism that Garland called a script. He has always been a wildly adventurous storyteller — one need to only look at his science-fiction work with Danny Boyle or even his utterly odd video game work (please seek out Enslaved if you haven’t yet) — but he’s never been able to be so coldly alien and hyper-emotional at the same time.
Just look at the thrilling final sequence of this film for proof, an action sequence staged with such inimitable grace and odd beauty that you’d think you were watching ballet. The usual pejoratives about ambitious cinema — pretentious, ponderous, obtuse — will be thrown at this, but you’ll be missing the forest for the mutated trees. Annihilation is just astonishing.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image via Paramount.