Annihilation was always going to be a highly scrutinized film. It follows writer/director Alex Garland’s last sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, a film that is well on its way to becoming a genre mainstay. Now, armed with a bigger budget and source material from novelist Jeff VanderMeer, Garland’s sophomore directorial effort has been eagerly anticipated by fans.
And the wait has been worth it. Annihilation is remarkable.
The story revolves around a group of scientists who are investigating an anomalous expanding zone that was created from some sort of meteor crash. This area is dubbed the Shimmer and all lifeforms inside the Shimmer seem to be mutating in unprecedented ways.
This idea of mutation allows Garland to display a knack for visual wonder. Annihilation is an aggressively colorful movie, reaching heights of psychedelia that haven’t been seen in a wide release film for a while. The entire area of the Shimmer is given a prismatic rainbow sheen that keeps the world feeling utterly alien. It’s a subtle but impressive effect that maintains the illusion of this world.
Even if you took away that imagery, Annihilation is simply a great looking film. With a reported budget of $40 million, Garland has made a film that looks like it cost more than twice that. It’s an achievement that needs to be acknowledged.
Arthouse Meets Blockbuster
Part of that accomplishment comes in the film’s deft attempt at blending high concept genre thrills with a meditative tone. Garland doesn’t sacrifice his arthouse leanings — an unconventional score, sparse and character-driven dialogue, non-linear storytelling — in order to amp up the more accessible sci-fi/horror elements. He finds a way to blend the two and they end up complimenting each other extremely well.
And boy, do those elements work. The sci-fi premise of the movie allows for a wonderful array of entrancing sets and trippy moments, while the horror elements go full-out creature feature. There are moments that feel like they would be right at home in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Yes, Annihilation is operating at that level of excellence. Your skin will crawl during some of the more tense and disturbing sections of the movie.
A Solid Ensemble
But, what about the characters? It’s characters that anchor a story and keep us invested in what’s going on. Annihilation gives us an ensemble that is diverse in motivation and individually intriguing. Our main character, Lena (Natalie Portman), is investigating the Shimmer in order to find out what happened to her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). He is the only person to enter the Shimmer and come out alive but his body seems to be failing him.
Lena is a complex and clearly troubled character, and the revelations we learn about her and Kane along the way amplify her own personal drive. We also get characters like Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who are equally mysterious and offer up some illuminating reveals as the film progresses.
It’s worth noting that the entire main cast of the film are all women, but it’s also worth noting that Annihilation isn’t going about this fact in a Ghostbusters (2016) way. There are certainly subtextual elements you can read into in regards to the team being comprised of solely female characters, but Annihilation isn’t being showy about this and that makes it all the more inspiring.
The Only Problem
If there is one nitpick that feels necessary to point out, it’s that Annihilation falls victim to a debilitating storytelling trope: framing the story by starting at the ending. The movie starts with Lena having exited the Shimmer and being interrogated. This is a well-worn cliché that feels at odds with the rest of the movie’s intelligent and challenging construction.
It’s a framework that destroys any mystery about what will happen to certain characters. If the movie could edit those parts out or move them all to the ending, it would be nigh perfect. It’s possible that this is how the source novel is structured, but regardless, it’s the one problem in an otherwise astonishing film.
Is Annihilation Good?
It’s damn near great. It balances being cerebral sci-fi with effective horror, compelling characters, and jaw-dropping visuals that will brand themselves into your brain. This is one that will find its audience one way or another, and we’ll be talking about it for a long, long time. It’s not going to hit for everyone — it still leans more arty than blockbuster — but if you dig smart genre fare that isn’t afraid to push the boundaries, this is an unmissable experience.