We live in an unfair world, as demonstrated by the fact that I only have one day to review “Annihilation”. The movie bursts at every seam with challenge and meaning and will take years to properly digest. So, I’ll get this out of the way now: “Annihilation” is not for everyone. But if your mind enjoys working so hard that it explodes, you should unquestionably see it.
Alex Garland, the filmmaker behind the immaculate “Ex Machina”, is finally back. This time, the writer/director is adapting the first book of an acclaimed series by Jeff VanderMeer. Fans of the book beware: I quickly perused a summary of the source material, and this film adaption is next to nothing like it. Garland essentially uses the novel as a jumping-off point for his own sci-fi exploration.
Exploration is the name of the game for a team of scientists after an environmental phenomenon dubbed ‘The Shimmer’ begins subjugating a section of the Earth. Led by a fiercely dynamic Natalie Portman, the five women brave the unknown and step into The Shimmer’s undulating rainbow walls to search for a lighthouse at the epicenter of the enigmatic event.
The less you know about the narrative of “Annihilation”, the better. Given the astonishing amount that Garland conveys through subtext, it’s best if you let him draw the dots before he guides you in connecting them. You’ll only want to go in blind metaphorically, though: the film’s production design is a marvel of visual wizardry.
The Shimmer distorts everything it touches, and production designer Mark Digby brings that effect to life indescribably. Light refracts into rainbows like scattered mist, washing the air in a colorful haze. Flora and fauna blossom beyond any horticulturist’s wildest imagination. The metamorphosis of our earth contorts plants, animals, and visual possibilities into impossibly ornate dreams.
And distressingly grotesque nightmares. “Annihilation” contains one of the most horrifying scenes I’ve ever seen in cinema, period. The film feels like an infinite dream, but there are traumatizing times in which this dream is accompanied by a fever. Mutation is a double-sided coin.
Which appears to be part of Garland’s larger points. “Annihilation” is deeply concerned with eschatology; it’s obsessed with the simultaneous beauty and horror of approaching the end. The gorgeous highs and macabre lows of The Shimmer hold a mirror up to our own dealings with death: sugarcoat it with religion? Face it with grim acceptance? Flee its inevitability with futile grasps at immortality? The film curls its fingers around these reactions and physically actualizes them, allowing these sci-fi realizations to interact with one another and challenge our post-life predilections.
It’s not as subtle as “Ex Machina”: there are moments of audience spoon-feeding, almost as if Garland was frustrated that not enough people understood his previous film. That isn’t the only weakness holding “Annihilation” back from masterpiece status—some of the dialogue may have worked on paper but sounds mawkish when spoken aloud.
But these are minor reproaches of a movie that’s destined to shape the future of the sci-fi genre. It’s the kind of thoughtful art that will never worm its way out of your head, regardless of how thoroughly it annihilates your brain.