I loved every strange, elegiac, dreamlike moment of Alex Garland’s Annihilation. Less a narrative and more a trance, Annihilation is a joyously enigmatic movie. A movie often relies on some sort of indirect audience participation. Annihilation doesn’t play with us or even tease us. Instead, it merely exists, and either you’re with it, or you’re not.
Based on the book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation is a mesmerizing and hypnotic story following the out-of-sync and off-putting logic of dreams. Time is abstract and appears to move slower at times and faster at others. Characters find themselves in places they don’t remember, arriving or waking up from a sleep they don’t remember taking.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is mourning the death of her husband, Kane (Oscar Issac), who went missing in action. So it’s understandable when she seems a little taken aback when Kane shows up a year later. Kane himself is dazed and confused about how he got there.
From here on in the details get fuzzy. If only because we’re not quite sure how much is a dream, seems like a dream, what’s a memory, or a fractured combination of the three. Time passes strangely both for the characters and for the audience. I mentioned earlier how Annihilation doesn’t play with us. In actuality, Garland does play with us by using a sort of heightened and melodic sound design that leaves us feeling tense with anticipation and calm, with a sort of haunted longing.
Lena learns from Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), that her husband, along with some others, disappeared into the Shimmer. Only Kane seems to have survived. The Shimmer, as far as anyone can tell, is the result of a crashed meteor. A sort of shimmering wall has begun to grow around the crash site and is growing outward as time passes.
Desperate to find out what happened to her husband, Lena volunteers for the next mission, led by Ventress. Lena thus volunteers to tag along on a mission to go into the Shimmer. The team includes, as all teams include, a physicist named Josie (Tessa Thompson), Anya (Gina Rodriguez) the soldier, Cass (Tuva Novotny) an anthropologist, as well as Lena a biologist and a former soldier, and Dr. Ventress, a psychologist.
That is all I will tell you. Anything more would be pointless. Anyone expecting revelations should steer clear of Annihilation. Garland, who adapted the book for the screen, allows us not just five women as the protagonists; they are the only protagonists and the movie’s focus. We never really understand what’s happening, but that’s okay; they don’t either, which allows a kinship to develop between us and the them.
As I sat there watching the movie, I felt deliriously lost. Throughout most of the movie, scenes don’t behave as they normally do. Even if you think you know where it’s going, you will be surprised at how it got there. Whether it’s the way an actor says a line or the way the scene navigates what looks to be familiar terrain, each scene holds a surprise of some sort.
Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr. Ventress is a joy, not because of any grand revelation but because of the sheer unpredictability, she brings to her every moment on screen. Our eyes draw naturally to her. She is a character actress of the sort capable of transforming herself with hair dye and a pair of glasses.
Natalie Portman has long been a movie star and has turned in many great performances. But there’s something about Portman’s Lena that I don’t think I’ve ever seen her portray. Or maybe I’ve just never seen her portray Lena, an open book of a character who nonetheless keeps much from herself and us. By the end, we feel as lost and confused as she does.
Thompson, Rodriguez, and Novotny round out a movie already front-loaded with great acting. Thompson showcases a sensitivity and vulnerability normally not afforded to her. Rodriguez bulked up, and her Anya—a brawny, swaggering, in-over-her-head soldier—is a delight to see from this promising young actress. Novotny is new to me, but I was impressed with the solemnity and gravity she was able to bring to bear in her little time on screen.
I shouldn’t have to point out that Annihilation is a hardcore science fiction movie made up entirely of women, with a few minor exceptions, but hey, guess what? Annihilation is a hardcore science fiction movie made up entirely of women, with a few minor exceptions. This wouldn’t be such a huge deal, but how many science fiction movies have there been with almost exclusively male casts? Yet, Annihilation never waves a flag about this.
Garland, along with his cinematographer Rob Hardy lends Annihilation a somnolent feel. A visual experience which along with the score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, lulls us into a soothing calm but constantly interjecting moments of tense anticipation and dread. It’s hard to describe the feeling of elation I had while watching it.
I can’t pretend to know, or even understand, what Annihilation is about, or even what Annihilation itself thinks it’s about. All I know is that I sat there, moved and entranced by a gorgeously confusing, endlessly inventive, and daring science fiction movie. Somehow Garland never made me feel as if he was being pretentious. I may be confused as to what’s going on, but I always got a weird feeling Garland knew.
Looking back over the movies I’ve reviewed in the last week or so, it’s astounding how few I’m able to even recall. Annihilation bristles with confidence and audacity in its complete disregard for easy analysis. It may not be for everybody. But it is for me.