The movie Annihilation is a strange, gloriously ambiguous visual wonder. It is writer/director Alex Garland’s interpretation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Nebula-award-winning first novel in the Southern Reach Trilogy. There are elements of the story that recall a wide variety of what has come before, from Predator, Sunshine (for which Garland was the screenwriter), Apocalypse Now, and Monster, to Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Those who have read and are loyal to the books, should abandon all expectation. Annihilation must be taken for itself, not as canon-made-cinema. The resulting sum of its influences, both written and formerly onscreen, is not really mainstream fare. It should, however, enthrall sci-fi and horror aficionados enough to make them fans, with scenes so scary and visually compelling, they’ll be remembered long after the credits roll.
A group of women scientists venture into a quarantined area being called “The Shimmer”, which has caused death and defied explanation, in order to stop the greater destruction it threatens as it expandd towards populated areas. Upon entering, they find a twisted sort of paradise, or Garden of Eden, insinuating itself into the landscape. This mysterious other-world is full of mutating plants and animals, which are beautiful, and often deadly. The various members of the team have secrets, motivations, and personal damage that influence how they react to events as they unfold. Biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) is determined to discover what happened to her husband, who is near death after his own encounters inside The Shimmer. Expedition leader Dr. Ventures (Jennifer Jason Leigh) believes she can’t send another team to their death without risking her own life with them. Other members are also clearly hiding trauma, including medic Anya (Gina Rodriguez) and physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson).
Audiences should be fascinated by the production design team’s choices in how they brought this ever-morphing world to life, even as they are confounded by what the film may be trying to say overall.
Indeed, the film Annihilation has powerful references to creation, Adam and Eve, how a world is built, and the morality, or lack thereof, around that creation. It also considers inner and outer beauty, and peace, while frequently shifting from the objective to the subjective points of view. Never mind all that. Viewers could just take the film largely on the surface level, and find thrills in a few specific deadly encounters with mutations. They can also glory in the great display of acting by the female co-stars leading the film, especially by Rodriguez and Thompson, who are cast against type. The score, which vacillates between buzzy tech drones and organic instrumentation, is a perfect compliment to the proceedings.
Apparently, early test screenings had Paramount screaming for recuts and a change in the ending, fearing it would confuse or alienate audiences. Did they look at Garland’s resume? What, I wonder, did they think of the philosophy-heavy films Ex Machina and Sunshine? The film’s producer Scott Rudin sided with Garland, who refused to make changes, leading to a deal wherein Paramount is releasing the film in the US, and Netflix will stream the movie in the rest of the world 17 days later. Sticking with Garland’s vision was a wise decision. Some Audiences will wander out of the theater asking themselves what the hell they just saw, but many who commit to its two hour running time, will be treated to something both wondrous and nightmarish that they’ll not soon forget.