In 2015, screenwriter and author Alex Garland announced himself as quite a special director with Ex Machina. With a visual style that drew fair comparison to Stanley Kubrick and a compelling story to go with it, that picture was one of the year’s highlights. There is no sophomore slump to be had with Annihilation, a challenging and eye-popping sci-fi experience that sticks with you after the credits roll (as did his first picture).
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology professor and Army vet whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year after taking on a mysterious mission. He turns up one day after that disappearance, but doesn’t seem himself. A health scare causes him to be quarantined and causes Lena to search for answers. She finds some of them from psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). It turns out Kane was part of a secret expedition to The Shimmer, a stretch of land that’s been evacuated and is undergoing government testing for bizarre activity within its perimeters. Many military personnel have entered it. Kane is the first to return.
Dr. Ventress and Lena figure out that some scientific experience may be better served to investigate The Shimmer, as opposed to military might. They assemble an all female squad that includes a physicist (Tessa Thompson), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), and a geologist (Tuva Novotny) to join them. Other than the doctor, the rest of the team is unaware of Lena’s familial connection to The Shimmer.
The world that these five women enter is a beautiful, eerie, and dangerous one. There are surprises to be found in The Shimmer – so much so that saying too much would enter spoiler territory. All of the characters that enter it have backstories that cause them to take on such a risky mission. Lena’s is an obvious one – to find out what happened to her husband. Some of the others are a bit more subtle.
Annihilation, like Ex Machina, has certain sequences that are stunning. There’s a scene involving a highly abnormal creature (you’ll know when you see it) that is truly tension filled and weirdly wonderful. The production design and look of The Shimmer is a triumph. Portman’s central character is a complicated one. She’s not just the concerned wife looking for answers. Lena has her own demons and they tie directly into her mission. That holds true for all of the women. Leigh and Rodriguez are particular standouts in their supporting work.
After Ex Machina, I certainly anticipated Annihilation to be a visually glorious experience and it is. Yet we’ve also seen Garland’s abilities to tell a tale packed with food for thought afterwards. Annihilation has something to say about rebirth, marriage, disease, depression, and more. You may not even realize it all until later. In the meantime, I remained transfixed on the unique world it created to explore those issues.
***1/2 (out of four)