Thought-provoking, challenging science fiction is increasingly hard to come by, especially within the auspices of studio filmmaking. With inflating budgets and the pressures of franchise familiarity to meet ever-increasing box office estimates, one can hardly be surprised when confident, auteur-driven works fall by the wayside.
This may be the danger faced by Alex Garland’s Annihilation, a film so cerebral and uncompromising in its vision that its international release is going straight to Netflix, after test screenings proved it was too “intellectual” and “complicated” for general audiences. Producers are jittery about this one, and it’s understandable; Blade Runner 2049 was yet another high-concept head-scratcher that made far too little money, and it had the benefit of an existing IP.
Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer (the first in the Southern Reach Trilogy), Annihilation depicts an Earth suddenly struck by a small asteroid filled with a mysterious biomass. Months later, a miles-long radius around the impact site (Area X) covers a former state park in a fog-shrouded, kaleidoscopic barrier known as “The Shimmer,” and the US government has been sending in teams to explore and investigate.
Only one person comes back: Kane (Oscar Isaac), the husband of former soldier-turned-botanist Lena (Natalie Portman), who’s concerned by his strange behavior and worsening health. Motivated to save her dying husband, Lena joins the latest expedition into Area X, a group of five women (along with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny) tasked with reaching the center of the mass and discovering where it comes from.
Fresh from the cult success of his similarly novelistic sci-fi debut Ex Machina, Garland moves from sleek minimalist futurism to the rough, unpredictable climes of Area X, a fog-shrouded swamp slowly being changed – “refracted,” as Thompson’s character says – by the alien biomass at the center of The Shimmer. Plants grow different species of flowers within the same plant structure, walls are covered with a sickening alien fungus, and animals grow twisted, strange and mean. The film’s setting disturbs with unearthly colors and shapes, twisting these perversions of nature into an unearthly beauty thanks to Rob Hardy’s lush cinematography and Mark Digby’s ethereal production design. It’s a place of stark, horrific beauty, equally capable of evolving or devolving whatever organic matter inhabits it.
Of course, the Shimmer affects our protagonists as well, the alien biology of Area X boring into them with mysterious purpose. Body horror is another long tradition of sci-fi that Garland mines for maximum impact (one particular scene is quite literally gut-wrenching), but it all serves the story’s broader ideas about the ways in which our environment changes us, and how we deal with the prospect of such dramatic transformation. Like VanderMeer’s novel, Garland’s adaptation digs deep into the essence of eco-horror – what happens when nature rebels against us? And do we change with it?
The descent into the unknown has long been a minefield for intriguing works of speculative fiction. Annihilation evokes everything from 2001 to Arrival to Tarkovsky’s Stalker, as baffled human protagonists make an intrepid journey into environments they cannot possibly understand and can barely survive, with metaphysical changes and philosophical revelations awaiting them at the end of their quest. At the same time, Garland has spliced a bit of DNA from Apocalypse Now into Annihilation – the sense of impending doom as Portman and her cohort wade through rivers and abandoned military bases and bodies is nothing short of fatalistic.
Even among those shades of sci-fi familiarity, Annihilation innovates. The focus on a team comprised entirely of women creates a new dynamic sorely underused in lots of mainstream filmmaking – it’s a refreshing change from the egos and know-it-all assurance typified in most movies about people in fatigues stalking around in the jungle with M-16s. Portman is especially impressive, carrying the film with a resolve and scientific gravitas she was certainly not given in the Thor movies (though a few flashbacks about her life before Isaac’s character left don’t land as intended). Her teammates are equally compelling, from Thompson’s contemplative botanist to Rodriguez’s military pragmatist to Leigh’s cagey Dr. Ventress.
If anyone tells you they completely pieced together what happens in the final act of Annihilation, they’re lying to you, and it might be this section that left test audiences uncomfortable and producers jittery. That final act is virtually wordless, its beats and movements playing out like something akin to interpretive dance, and if you’re not on Annihilation’s wavelength, it might seem overwrought. For the willing participant, however, it’s a sequence of startling beauty. If nothing else, it’s impressive how Garland refuses to back down from the novelistic sensibilities of his works, Annihilation never compromising despite its sizable budget, and the higher stakes that come with it. Even with all the CGI toys in the world, he commits to asking big questions without spoon-feeding the answers.
Annihilation, like Ex Machina, will likely garner acclaim from some and scorn (or worse, complete disregard) from many more. However, iit’s one of the most arresting, affecting science fiction movies of the last few years, and certainly one of the best films to see release in 2018 thus far. It’s ambitious and haunting, which makes its international streaming release all the more tragic. The warped, transformative nature of the Shimmer, and Portman’s emotional journey through its alien climes, needs to be seen on the biggest screen possible.