Following the arrival of his directorial debut Ex Machina in 2015, Alex Garland found himself on plenty of people’s radars as a stunning visualist and a true visionary. Three years later we finally get his follow-up, and though Annihilation doesn’t quite rise to the level of its predecessor, it’s no less mesmerizing and beautiful, and confounding.
Based (in the loosest way possible) on the first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation is science fiction at its core, but like 2016’s Arrival, it transcends genre to become a mind-bending head trip that will leave you with far more questions than answers. But in a good way.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, an ex-Army biologist who lost her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) a year ago; he never returned from a classified mission. When he mysteriously reappears, though, with no memory of where he was of how he got home, she gets pulled into the vortex of The Shimmer—a chunk of land bounded by a fluid, rainbow-colored wall, from which no one has ever returned. Until Kane did; that was his mission.
Lena joins a mini-platoon of four other women, led by the mysterious Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to explore The Shimmer to find answers. Once inside they discover all kinds of nutso flora and fauna, including an alligator with shark teeth, mixed-species flowers growing on the same vine, and deer with branches for antlers. And from there it only gets more weird.
Garland, to be sure, took plenty of liberties with VanderMeer’s book, and die-hard fans may find themselves either scratching their heads or frustrated (or both), but there’s no denying Garland’s prowess behind the lens. Feeling a bit like the horrific bastard child of Arrival and Avatar, Annihilation is equal measures terrifying and wondrous. Not quite a horror movie, but filled with a handful of white-knuckle scenes, it’s a film that belies description, both in terms of plot and, frankly, genre. Only Garland’s vision and Portman’s astounding talent remain constant throughout.
Cinematographer Rob Hardy, production designer Mark Digby, and composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (all of whom also worked with Garland on Ex Machina) elevate Annihilation even further, providing just the right level of uneasiness to prevent you from ever quite relaxing. It’s a bit like looking at a surrealist painting; there’s something a little uncomfortable about it, but you can’t help getting hooked into it as you try to figure out what the heck is going on.
The film suffers a fraction from a prolonged and borderline-hokey conclusion, but it’s not enough to erase everything that came before it. There’s plenty to marvel at and get freaked out by, and Annihilation will certainly leave you guessing, but there’s one question that does get a definitive answer—and that’s whether Alex Garland would be able to successfully follow Ex Machina. Indeed he did.