Film Review: Annihilation

Kubrickian coolness underscores a journey by five women into the heart, brain, liver and spleen of darkness in this harrowing sci-fi horror film that tangles with the idea of identity.
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Novelist-turned-filmmaker Alex Garland, who wrote the screenplays for 28 Days Later... (2002), Never Let Me Go (2010) and Dredd (2012), and both wrote and directed Ex Machina (2014), emerges as a singular visionary in this science-fiction horror drama, in which a constant, low-key suspense can erupt into brutally phantasmagoric metaphors about the core of who we are. About, even, what we are.

After a meteorite—or something—crashes into a lighthouse on the Southern U.S. coast, the area around the site is engulfed with what the government response team logically calls “The Shimmer,” an iridescent field of electromagnetic radiation that is gradually growing concentrically. It's already overrun an evacuated swampland town and in a matter of weeks will claim the Area X facility set up nearby to study it. Drones, animals and soldiers all have entered The Shimmer to explore it. Nothing returned except one person, Sgt. Kane (Oscar Isaac), with no memory of what went on—and he almost immediately goes into total organ failure.

His wife, microbiologist and former seven-year Army grunt Lena (Natalie Portman), gets pulled into a last-ditch expedition. Since soldiers seemed to have had no luck getting through the overgrown vegetation and sending back messages, perhaps scientists will fare better. Lena joins withdrawn, dumpy physicist Josie Radeck (Tessa Thompson, miles away from her confident, commanding Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok), anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Swedish actress Tuva Novotny), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez, star of TV's "Jane the Virgin") and the team's leader, psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Within The Shimmer, time behaves differently, plant and animal DNA mix and meld like the stirring of carnival taffy, and the scream of a dying brain can live on in the cry of a mutated, bear-like pig. Glass rises from sand. Identity emerges from nothingness. All of life exists in a drop of blood. Thank goodness video cameras still work or we might never know what happened. We are made up of cells, the story reminds us, and at what point do those cells amount to us…to an "I"? What demarcates all life—plant life, bacteria—from conscious life? Do we genuinely have identity, or are we only a conglomeration of nerves and synapses creating the illusion of it?

Garland, adapting the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, creates a world of stark logic that remains somehow surreal, and the team's journey into the heart, brain, liver and spleen of darkness is magical while still being rooted in procedure, chain-of-command, maps and tents and meals-ready-to-eat. Also of note is the eerie score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, evoking that of György Ligeti for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Her Oscar nomination for Jackie notwithstanding, a case can be made that this, instead, may be Natalie Portman's finest work since Black Swan. For all her riveting presence in any role, she is not an actress of infinite range. Within her parameters, however, she is unparalleled in depicting intelligence, seriousness, emotional rigor and existential exhaustion. That she also looks startlingly real as an ex-soldier precisely handling a high-powered automatic rifle is also a little shocking, and gives her Lena a dangerous edge that makes the unfolding events credible and even thrilling.

I worry that the marketing of Annihilation may make it seem a popcorn sci-fi adventure, maybe one adapted from a videogame; Downsizing was marketed as Honey-I-Shrunk-Matt-Damon fun when in fact it was a sober-minded satire, and audiences expecting one thing were disappointed in getting something very different. Annihilation is tough—there are firefights and gore—but it's also subtle and thoughtful. It'd make a good double feature with 2016’s Arrival.

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