A new movie from writer/director Alex Garland is a huge deal. Garland has a knack for taking standard genre stories — Sunshine (sci-fi), DmC: Devil May Cry (fantasy), 28 Days Later (horror) — and transforming them into thought-provoking meditations on life’s big questions. His directorial debut, 2014’s Ex Machina, became an instant classic, topped many best-of-year lists, and left viewers clamouring for Garland’s next film. Ex Machina set a high bar, but Garland’s latest picture, Annihilation, clears it with ease.
Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, Annihilation stars Natalie Portman as Lena, a biologist and ex-soldier struggling with the loss of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). A year prior, Kane (a soldier) took part in a top-secret mission, and no one has heard from him since. Just when it seems like Lena is finally ready to move on with her life, Kane returns home.
At first glance Kane appears shell-shocked, and he’s unable to recall where he has been or how he got back. In the blink of an eye he falls violently ill, and as he’s rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, the military swoops in to whisk Kane and Lena off to a secure location. While in quarantine Lena discovers that her husband’s squad went on a mission to investigate a strange phenomenon called the Shimmer, an environmental anomaly that’s expanding across the southern shoreline and slowly engulfing the entire ecosystem. No one who enters the Shimmer comes back, and even drones and recording devices stop transmitting signals once inside. So with her husband deathly ill and the government without answers, Lena joins a team of soldiers/scientists who head into the Shimmer in search of answers.
Annihilation defies categorization, slippoing between genres like a hummingbird buzzing from flower to flower. The movie’s horror, mystery, and sci-fi elements are most prominent, with a few action beats sprinkled in. This is a film that in one moment will have you leaning in to soak up every sumptuous detail inside the bewildering Shimmer, and in the next moment squirming in your seat, aghast at the vicious displays of body horror. Garland dices up genre elements like a chef serving up a mystery dish where each bite delivers its own unique flavour.
You can’t discuss Annihilation without bringing up its striking visuals. The standout moments range from stunning to horrifying, and for better and for worse, they stayed with me long after the movie ended. Sometimes what appears on screen is beautiful, grotesque, and haunting at the same time, and the experience felt like watching someone else’s fever dream unfold before my eyes. Annihilation is unsettling in the same manner as a Salvador Dali painting, as you see things in contexts where they shouldn’t exist, like crystal trees on a beach or flowers growing in the shape of human bodies. Garland also takes the holy-$#!t factor up several notches, unleashing mutated wildlife predators and rainbow-coloured plant life growing out of disfigured human remains. The production design has the simultaneously beautiful yet repulsive vibe found in the TV series Hannibal. If violence and gore make you squirm, then you’ll want to steer clear of this picture.
Not long before Annihilation was set to drop in theatres, Paramount cut a deal with Netflix to run the movie on their streaming service shortly after its theatrical launch. Paramount has reservations about whether audiences will show up to theatres to watch such a peculiar film, and they wanted to recoup their investment. I can’t blame them for hedging their bets. Garland had no intention of creating a movie for the masses, which makes Annihilation a tough film to recommend to most people. By industry standards, it’s too high-concept for casual viewers, too light on action, and its narrative too amorphous — never mind the unnerving horror sequences that may just melt unsuspecting viewers’ brains. Throw in the dark themes about self-destructive people, and Annihilation makes for one difficult watch.
But if your looking for something that defies mainstream conventions, then step right up, because there are also plenty of reasons to recommend this film. Annihilation shares the ambiguous dream logic found in David Lynch’s best work, but mixes it with the type of horrific imagery seen in Alien and The Thing. Thematically, this movie offers loads to unpack, with enough layers of subtext and subtle visual cues to fuel Reddit threads for months. I haven’t even brought up the strong (predominantly) female cast, the spine-tingling score, or the rollercoaster set pieces. Smart, challenging, and deeply unsettling, Annihilation is unlike anything set to arrive in theatres (and on Netflix) anytime soon.