Movie Review: Annihilation

Natalie Portman in a brilliant and semi-baffling fantasy.

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Paramount Pictures

There's one scene in Annihilation that is so hair-raisingly horrific, it's still creeping me out days after I saw the movie. I'd like to tell you about it, but of course I can't.

Writer-director Alex Garland, whose first feature, the 2014 Ex Machina, was already fairly disturbing—although not in the throat-grabbing way that this picture is—has adapted a novel by Jeff VanderMeer in an unusual manner. Garland has chucked quite a bit of VanderMeer's narrative, and has chosen instead to preserve the book's atmosphere of cellular chaos and hovering dread within a new structure, and to top it off with blazing psychedelic imagery. If you can deal with the picture's crepuscular ambiguity, there's a lot to look at here, and quite a bit to think about (or at least puzzle over).

The story is set in Florida many years after a meteor (or other outer-space thingy) came plummeting down out of the sky and landed on or in a coastal lighthouse. This turned the surrounding swamplands into Area X—a no-go zone surrounded by a swirling, gelatinous substance now known as The Shimmer. The government has sent 11 investigative teams into Area X to find out what's up, but none of their members have returned.

Until now. One night, an army sergeant named Kane (Oscar Isaac), a long-missing member of the most recent infiltration group, surprises his wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), by suddenly turning up in their home, unannounced and acting very oddly. Almost immediately, he and Lena are snatched by government operatives and transported to a secret lab facility, where team number 12 is being readied to take another crack at penetrating The Shimmer—and this time maybe living to tell about it.

Being a biologist (who also spent seven years in the army and so knows her way around weapons), Lena is able to insinuate herself into this latest team, joining a physicist (Tessa Thompson), a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny) and a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez). When they step through The Shimmer into Area X, they find that it's a dark playground of unbridled mutation, filled with inter-species hybrids and malignant vegetation. We see a pair of deer with flowering branches where their antlers ought to be, and, at an abandoned army base, a cluster of dead bodies, eerily upright and half-transformed into trees themselves. There's an attack by a mutant alligator the size of a mid-range Mazda, some startling internal body horror, and, as noted up at the top, much worse.

Garland has a poetic touch with these alarming images—which makes them all the more alarming, naturally—and he's abetted by the movie's brilliant soundtrack, which combines a weird, smeary score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (both Ex Machina veterans) with the rumbling inventions of sound designer Glenn Freemantle. I hope there was a little something extra in all of their pay packets after this production wrapped.

Not all of the women on the team make it out of Area X alive, of course. One of them has her face ripped off—another ghastly highlight—and one gets to narrate her own demise ("My flesh moves like liquid…my mind is cut loose"). The movie's conclusion is a conceptual blowout of such a spectacular nature that one is tempted to defy cliché and compare it to the celebrated ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I see no choice but to succumb to that temptation.

Annihilation is a beautiful film, gracefully paced and filled with original imagery. But it's also fairly inscrutable. What's really going on in Area X? There are no solid answers, only possibilities. Which could be a problem. Following a poorly received test screening last summer, two of the movie's producers reportedly started butting heads. One of them, David Ellison, wanted the picture overhauled to make it more commercial. The other, Scott Rudin, who had final say in the matter, refused to make any changes. And so here we are. And here it is. Place your bets, fantasy fans.

NEXT: Duty to Retreat from One's Home, When Attacked by a Cohabitant?

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  1. I have long felt that the word “crepuscular” has been under-utilised at Reason. Thank you for correcting this.

    1. I was shocked to find out this was a real word.

      I’m not sure how it applies to this movie, but I haven’t seen it.

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  2. Because Jennifer Jason Leigh isn’t half Native-American, I think we should all refuse to see the film . . . unless Elizabeth Warren says it’s okay, anyway.

    1. Mmmmm, Jennifer Jason Leigh.

      1. Mike Damone approves.

  3. Face-ripping? Finally something up my alley. Plus Ex Machina was great. And yes it’s always good to see Jennifer Jason Leigh in something.

    1. Yeah, man, I’m a longtime gorehound.

      I loved ExM too.

  4. Annihilation is a beautiful film, gracefully paced and filled with original imagery. But it’s also fairly inscrutable. What’s really going on in Area X? There are no solid answers, only possibilities.

    Well, the book it’s based on is the first in a trilogy. Presumably that’s why.

      1. WELL THEN I’LL JUST HAVE TO SEE IT I GUESS.

    1. I can assure you the 2nd and 3rd books don’t clear a damn thing up, in fact, they add additional layers of WTF.

      1. I haven’t read any of the Southern Reach books yet, but i did finish VanderMeer’s Borne recently. Protip: do not read Borne if you are uncomfortable around children or bears.

  5. “There’s one scene in Annihilation that is so hair-raisingly horrific, it’s still creeping me out days after I saw the movie. I’d like to tell you about it, but of course I can’t.”

    Hint: It has something to do with reverse mortgages.

    1. I think it’s a Joyce Behar upskirt glimpse.

      1. The horror… the horror…

  6. I went to see this last night. Kurt’s mostly right – his one near-criticism (“But it’s also fairly inscrutable…”), as he noted, is by design. The ultimate decision not to capitulate to the cinematic philistine places this film firmly in the camp of the thinker’s science fiction; to wit, those films not reliant on SFX and grand battle scenes to induce ravenous popcorn munching (yet, I still went through nearly two bowls – thanks, Alamo). Very much in the spirit of PKD and Bradbury. Nice review, Kurt.

    1. I guess the movie changed things up then. As far as the books go, they are more like a David Lynch film, transcribed to book form, set in Florida, with a sheen of sci-fi on top. By “David Lynch” I mean “lots of weird shit happens and we aren’t going to explain any of it. Because Art”.

      I say this a big Mulholland Drive fan. Because lesbian boobies.

      1. I haven’t read the book(s), so I couldn’t say. I will say that Annihilation isn’t terribly Lynch-esque. It went the artistic route a la Under the Skin, just not quite as far. Though, in contrast to the books you mention, the book version of Under the Skin was much more explicit: “this is what this is…” Still an intriguing book, but I mostly divorce it from the movie.

        1. Under the Skin may have been the worst movie I ever watched on a plane. And that includes The Accidental Tourist.

      2. It’s nothing like the surrealism in David Lynch. It’s more like Solaris, just not as slow.

  7. I’ve decided to see it today after your review, Loder.

    1. His friends call him Kurt.

  8. I decided on the basis of this review that there is nothing remotely compelling enough to induce me to see it. Yawn.

  9. I thought the previews looked awful. Portman looked about as convincing with a gun as Nancy Pelosi.

    1. You’d be wrong. The great thing about guns is that whether you’re 6’2″ or 4’11” you do about the same amount of damage as long as you are trained with it.

  10. These books were page-turners but didn’t offer much in the way of resolution. The first trailer had me believing that they had dumbed it down and I’m glad to hear that they stuck with the inscrutability. Because I’m sure it’s there for a reason, even if I can’t figure out what that reason is.

  11. “How did this cave get so wrinkly when it’s so dry here?”

    1. Damn it, that’s supposed to be under the Behar reference.

  12. Overall, I was pretty disappointed with the film. Some of the imagery was cool, but I guess I didn’t enjoy the ambiguity of the whole thing. I had no idea what to expect as I hadn’t even seen a trailer. I just saw that Ex Machina veterans were playing a role, so I went and saw it. If I didn’t have MoviePass I guess I would be a little disappointed with wasting my money, but you know – moral hazard, what can you do about it?

    1. I love movies like this because of the ambiguity and it’s not Independence Day. I like some variety. Same reason I liked Ex Machina; any movie that has you cheering for the robots has got to be good.

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