Alex Garland’s film may not consistently work as well as it could, but it’s still a daring and well-acted sci-fi tale.
Writer-director Alex Garland’s Annihilation is unconventional, pretentious, intelligent, and indulgent. It’s far less accessible than his 2015 film Ex Machina — Annihilation’s esoteric last act alone will almost certainly prove divisive — but it’s also a daring, unique sci-fi experience in an age of branded IP juggernauts and safe rehashes.
Natalie Portman carries the film with a cerebral steeliness as Lena, a biologist and former soldier who joins a covert government mission to explore The Shimmer, a mysterious phenomenon whose expansion threatens our very existence. Portman, who is in almost every scene of the film, wisely underplays Lena with a reserve and nuance befitting such a secretive person. But as strong and central as Portman is to the film, Annihilation is an ensemble piece featuring several solid supporting turns.
Tessa Thompson gives a subdued, thoughtful performance as Josie, another scientist on the mission, while Tuva Novotny imbues her character Sheppard with strength and compassion. Gina Rodriguez dominates the screen as Anya, who grows increasingly intense the deeper the team ventures into this dangerous realm full of mutated lifeforms.
Rounding out the squad is Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is tasked with the more tic-y and inscrutable role of team shrink Dr. Ventress. While Oscar Isaac and Benedict Wong lend able support, those expecting to see more of them may be disappointed at how little screen time they have.
One of Annihilation’s biggest drawbacks is its framing device, which reveals right away which team members live and die. This decision often robs their journey through the Shimmer of some much needed suspense. While there is still a big mystery for Lena and the audience to unravel, the loss of any bit of tension, surprise or emotional involvement in an already slow-burn and remote film is frustrating.
The story told here by Garland — whose screenwriting credits also include 28 Days Later, Dredd, Sunshine, and Never Let Me Go — contains elements familiar from his past works: apocalyptic events, authority figures or scientists faced with ethical dilemmas, the exploration of the issues of gender, identity, and creation. Garland knows this terrain well but, like those characters who previously entered The Shimmer, he sometimes loses his way. (Garland, it should be noted, has only adapted the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy and did not, according to interviews, read the other books when he made Annihilation.)
There is some very dazzling imagery throughout Annihilation —especially the fantastical, primordial Shimmer itself and some of the lifeforms they encounter there — but the visual effects are not uniformly great, especially during the final act. That trippy homestretch may end up being either a bridge too far for some viewers or the favorite, most challenging part of the movie for others.
Good sci-fi is about pondering Big Ideas and what it means to be human, and Annihilation is certainly in line with that. The film asks who we really are inside, explores the ideas of illusion vs. reality, what is artificial vs. what is human, the scary end of all things vs. the wondrous beginning of something else entirely different and new. These are disquieting, challenging topics for any film to cover, especially one so steeped in extended metaphor and which avoids easy answers. It really shouldn’t be surprising if such heady fare fails to connect with the mainstream, but if that were to happen then hopefully the film will find a cult following via streaming (it will be released internationally via Netflix a few weeks after its stateside debut).