The latest film from science fiction visionary Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”) is an eerie, mind-bending trip into a gorgeous environment littered with metaphors and symbolism. Simultaneously a philosophical piece of science fiction and pulse-pounding horror film, “Annihilation” will likely be discussed and debated for years to come.
The film follows a biologist and former soldier, Lena (Natalie Portman), on her journey to enter “The Shimmer,” a glazed-over mist that has mysteriously overtaken a forested area of Earth. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), entered “The Shimmer” on a previous expedition but never returned. Lena and four other scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny) are sent in to discover what happened.
“Annihilation” is based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name and brings it to life in lush detail. The film’s visuals are stark at times and rich at others, creating an interesting contrast which acts as one of the movie’s themes. “Annihilation” itself toes the line between multiple genres effortlessly, just as its characters struggle to find their true selves once in “The Shimmer.”
Once Lena and her team enter this cryptic zone, the film shows shades of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (1979) in its pacing and meandering plot. The characters simply wander, and time seems to be lost in these moments. Viewers aren’t quite sure how much or how little time has passed between certain scenes, which ultimately adds to the film’s captivating atmosphere. This unknown keeps viewers engaged. Garland holds these intriguing narrative questions in front of his audience like a carrot, ushering them along and hoping they don’t look too deep into other areas, such as the characters.
Plot drives “Annihilation.” While the film’s characters aren’t shallow, audiences won’t likely be watching because of them. With a predominantly female cast full of talented actresses, the film may have missed an opportunity to develop stronger chemistry among the team members before sending them into “The Shimmer.” The main scene getting to know these characters before they begin their journey — while effective enough — feels mandatory and leaves audiences wanting more.
What audiences might not expect from “Annihilation” is how effective it functions as a horror film. Throughout its second act, the film fades in and out of the horror genre, including a beautifully unnerving scene involving a bear-like creature and disturbing footage found on an old camcorder from Kane’s expedition. Garland directs these scenes with perfect pacing and tone, allowing them to simmer until reaching a boil at the perfect time.
Along with Garland’s direction, “Annihilation’s” haunting score pulls more than its fair share of creating the horror in the film. An unsettling melody of synthesizers plays sporadically over a quiet and steady hum, sending shivers down spines when overlaid with the film’s moments of intense imagery. During quieter scenes, the score becomes a soft fingerpicking guitar, lulling audiences into its rhythmic plotting.
Once “Annihilation” reaches its odd ending, audiences will likely be split. While it may go on a bit too long, the film’s climactic scene is just strange enough for audiences to love it or hate it. Garland leaves plenty of room for multiple interpretations, and the film’s alluring ambiguity is what might keep it in conversations for decades.
“Annihilation” is now playing in theaters nationwide.