He’s taken an odd route to Hollywood success but the English novelist Alex Garland has somehow managed to work in movies for over fifteen years and doesn’t really have a bad movie on his resume. Beginning with the sale of his novel “The Beach” Garland began a working relationship with Danny Boyle which led to Garland writing screenplays for the Boyle films 28 Days Later and Sunshine, which both had their flaws but which were nonetheless very solid movies and then he went out on his own and wrote the screenplays for the under-rated Never Let Me Go and Dredd but he really became a force of his own in 2015 when he stepped into the director role and made the small scale science fiction film Ex Machina. That was a movie I was kind of lukewarm on when I saw it but which in retrospect I think I was a bit too hard on. That was an original science fiction movie made on a mid-budget, which is a kind of movie critics get really excited for but are also often disappointed by and Ex Machina managed to deliver and even somehow managed to get a visual effects Academy award despite being made on a relatively small budget. He’s now been allowed to make another science fiction film and this time with a bigger budget and despite being made in a major studio his new film Annihilation is just as uncompromising as Ex Machina.
Annihilation begins with the sight of some kind of object crashing to Earth and hitting some kind of lighthouse. From there we flash forward and meet a woman named Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and military veteran whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing since going on a classified special forces mission a year prior. That ends one day when he suddenly shows up at her door and begins behaving strangely and can’t explain where he’s been and shows signs of deteriorating health. Later that day they’re both stopped and arrested by government agents and brought to a secret facility that sits outside a national park that has been taken over by a strange phenomenon called “The Shimmer” which has encompassed the park (which has been evacuated under pretext of a chemical spill) and seems to be expanding outward. Kane is apparently the only person so far to have returned from The Shimmer and as such Lena convinces a lady named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to let her join the next team to enter The Shimmer in hopes of finding answers.
One of the reasons I was a little cool on Ex Machina originally was simply that I was a little tired of the whole “how human are robots” question that science fiction has been batting around for the last hundred years. With Annihilation avoids this problem, in part because it’s a lot less cut and dry about what it’s trying to say or even what questions it’s asking in the first place. In broad strokes it’s pretty clear what “the shimmer” is insomuch as it appears to be some sort of alien terraforming effort but the exact reasons for its creation and the full extent of what happens there is less defined. The area is plainly reminiscent of “The Zone” from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in that it’s this seemingly earthly area where few people opt to venture because of the strange things that happen there. Also like Tarkovsky’s film the mission that Lena and her compatriots go on seems less like an adventure and more like a grim inevitability they’re driven to by various personal demons. Unlike Stalker though Annihilation has some more conventional genre thrills along the way. I don’t want to give away too much of what goes on inside of “the shimmer” but the is a horror element to it including some creature effects that are somewhat reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing and some of the group dynamics as the trip into “the shimmer” reminded me a bit of The Blair Witch Project.
In short, Annihilation is quite a trip. It’s a thoughtful science fiction movie but one with imagery and structure that make it an entertaining viewing. The most obvious recent touchstone for the movie would likely be the 2016 film Arrival, which was probably the last intelligent science fiction movie to really catch on with the public. Both films are about women tasked with making contact with aliens who have appeared on Earth for mysterious reasons, but Annihilation is a little more visually adventurous and a little less generous in doling out its meaning. This is a movie that’s going to keep people guessing and theorizing for a while, maybe not as long as one of Tarkovsky’s science fiction films, but certainly longer than most of the movies that Hollywood gives us.
****1/2 out of Five