Annihilation (Movie Review)

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

PLOT: After the disappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) a year prior, intrepid biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) braves the ecological expedition into the unknown Area X with only a professional crew of four by her side.

REVIEW: Two years following his trenchantly thought-stirring exploration of robotic AI in EX MACHINA, superb writer and now budding director Alex Garland has easily met, if not fully eclipsed, the lofty expectations his feature debut lent toward his new and highly ambitious sophomore sci-fi spectacle. Indeed, Garland’s skeletal big-screen adaptation of the best-selling Jeff VanderMeer novel ANNIHILATION, the first leg in the Southern Reach triptych, is not only one of the finest films of this young new year, regardless of genre, it’s at once a pressing environmental cautionary parable, a spiritual inner-journey, as well as a masterfully menacing marvel of an extraterrestrial mutant monster movie. Featuring a brilliant ensemble, a dazzling array of rainbow VFX and an unimpeachable air of enigmatic intrigue all the way through, oversensitive whitewashing controversy be damned, ANNIHILATION is damn near beyond reproach. See it as soon as you’re able!

Kane (Isaac) and Lena (Portman) are married soldiers, she also a biologist. As the former has been missing for a year after a top-secret expedition into Area X, a mysterious ecological disaster zone of unknown origin, he’s all but presumed dead. Vowing to know what happened to her husband, Lena agrees to embark on her own expedition into the ever-expanding Area X. She’s accompanied by a coterie of scientific specialists – Psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Medic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Geologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and Physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson). Armed with camping gear and an impressive arsenal, the crew cautiously enters The Shimmer – an amorphously spreading, all-consuming, candy-colored veneer of an extraterrestrial environment – and begins to chronicle their findings en route to a lighthouse they believe may be the source of an outbreak. Yet the more they find, the more they lose their minds at best, their lives at worst!

In an attempt to sidestep a crop of spoiling landmines, we’ll keep the plot particulars under as many warps as possible. Suffice it to say, as the crew forgers deeper into The Shimmer – a fearsome fungal jungle if you will – they begin to witness surreal, mind-bendingly inexplicable phenomena. The laws of nature are completely upended, inorganic mutation and impossible crosspollination give birth to a wide assortment of unearthly species, both flora and fauna. Meanwhile, various crew members start to go missing, one by one, with some more imperiled than others. Worse yet, of those remaining together, tension-fueled rifts, intense jump scares and paranoid thoughts of ulterior motives take hold in a way that drives them apart emotionally and operationally, if not physically. When Lena eventually uncovers a potentially more sinister subplot involving her beloved Kane, she’s forced with an ultimate decision that will hew to the revelation of her true nature, as her quest for truth leads her into a profoundly soulful inward spiritual journey. Will she annihilate her old self to synthesize anew? Or will she try to annihilate The Shimmer and return home intact?

There is so much more to like and love than detest in ANNIHILATION, but what instantly struck me about the film is its consistently cryptic tone and airtight hull of mystery driving the narrative. Just as the stimulating visual resplendence is so foreign to the characters, so too is the overarching intrigue to the audience. That is, we’re kept just as mystified to the nature of The Shimmer as the characters are, which amply immerses us into their shoes. I also really appreciated the extraterrestrial differentiation from most sci-fi films. Instead of little green beings with giant heads and slanted eyes, here we get an intelligent organism that develops the mimetic ability to crossbreed different species. So rather than a wholly alien race invading Earth, we get a terrestrial mixture of earthly creatures with alien hybridization, the synthesis between the two birthing enthralling new organisms altogether. Mortifying ones! Of course, the visual representation of this is absolutely first rate in its lavish Lovecraftian otherworldliness, with same Oscar winning FX team from EX MACHINA reprising their roles here as well. The trippy, elementally psychedelic wonderment would be cool enough to look at alone without the larger existential threads stitched throughout. In concert, the movie doubles its import!

Further plaudits need go out to the impressive ensemble here, which, despite the clamor of some over the so called whitewashing of the Lena character, let’s not forget, is almost entirely comprised of women (the crew is all women). In fact, most of the men in the film fall inferior to their female counterparts in many respects, a truism that should be celebrated here if not merely noted. The Oscar winning Portman carries the film like the movie star she’s been for the last 25 years, with standouts coming by way of the resurgent Jason Leigh, as well as Tessa Thompson as Radek and Gina Rodriguez as Thorensen. These are all strong-willed women, neither reliant nor compliant, whose world class beauty becomes tertiary to their dramatic arcs in the film. Look, I understand and agree with the need for greater Asian representation on both big and small screen, but let’s not forget, in this current climate of the Me Too/Time’s Up movement, it’s worth noting ANNIHILATION depicts far more female empowerment than subservience. And since this movie was shot back before this movement took place, this feels genuine, not forcedly reactionary.

But for all this talk of interspecies mutation, ANNIHILATION left me with the impression that it could play as a twisted hybrid of ARRIVAL, PREDATOR, 2001 (the star-gate sequence) and more obscurely, THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS. If that sounds like an experience you’d be into undergoing, then do wise and promptly run out when the flick drops into theaters this Friday. Not only is ANNIHILATION an impressive EX MACHINA follow-up for Garland, its orthogonal depiction of an unearthly environment is as eye-prying as it is thought-provoking, its mutated monsters as gnarly and newfangled as we’ve seen in some time, its underlying stance on pro-environmentalism right-headed, and its undeniably powerful predominant female cast all amount to ANNIHILATION being the undoubted must-see movie of 2018 so far!




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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie.