It really takes a filmmaker with some guts to attempt a film as high-concept and potentially alienating as "Annihilation." Fortunately we have Alex Garland, hot off the success of "Ex Machina," directing his strangest and most ambitious project to date.
Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, "Annihilation" is about a group of five female scientists who journey into a place called Area X on the Gulf coast that has been affected by an unknown force called "The Shimmer." Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), was part of the last mission into the Shimmer. He returned alone and disoriented before falling deathly ill. Lena is joined by a psychologist, Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a physicist, Radek (Tessa Thompson), a paramedic, Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and a geologist/surveyor, Sheppard (Tuva Novotny).
This is a hard science fiction film, heavy on ideas and light on action. There are some scenes of suspense and horror, but mostly of the existential kind. That's not to say that the film is ever a bore. It's quite the opposite. From the moment the team passes the iridescent soap bubble borders of the Shimmer, we're inundated with fantastic, otherworldly images. The colors are saturated, the atmosphere is tense, and there's this lingering sense of dread that hangs over the whole picture. There are several nods to Andrei Tarkovsky's "Stalker," which has some plot similarities to "Annihilation," but this is a very different kind of story. Its metaphors are more specific and its storytelling is much easier to parse. Audiences will still need to have some patience with it, and be willing to put some pieces together themselves, but the narrative is ultimately pretty conventional.
On the other hand, the story often feels beside the point. "Annihilation" works best as a sensory experience. The filmmakers went to great lengths to create this fascinating, nightmarish place where it seems like nature has gone mad, and the characters are constantly battling the urge to go mad along with it. Mutated plant and animal life, abandoned and overgrown structures, and even the light filtered through the Shimmer all look uniquely strange and unnerving. There are long stretches of silence or very limited music to really help all that atmosphere soak in. We know from very early on that the majority of the characters are going to fall victim to the Shimmer, just not when or how or in what horrifically phantasmagorical fashion.
I also appreciate that the ideas that the film tackles are thoughtful ones, and handled in a fairly detached and ambivalent manner. The Shimmer could represent a lot of different things, but the film compares its destructive powers to the spread of cancer and the self-destructive impulses of its heroine. It argues that these are things that are better understood through scientific observation, without trying to impose a system of morality on their function. The film also leaves us without many concrete answers, suggesting that there is much about the Shimmer that is simply inexplicable. And frankly, not enough media is brave enough to do that.
In a film like this the characters are pretty thinly drawn by necessity. Still, I found the performances of Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, and Jennifer Jason Leigh very effective. All of them have to sell some very outlandish material, but they do sell it. We see enough of Lena and Kane's relationship in flashbacks to give Lena's present day actions some emotional weight. Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance is as disturbing as any of the creepy Shimmer critters. "Annihilation" is ultimately as much about the characters' motivations as it is about the phenomena that they investigate, and we're left with a lot of ambiguity here too.
In short, "Annihilation" is determined to make the viewer engage with its themes and ideas, to follow the patterns and pick apart the details in search of meaning. It's one of those films that rewards multiple viewings, but is certainly impressive enough after only a single one. It's a film too cold and cerebral to really love, but it succeeded in getting under my skin. And it did get me to think and wonder and second guess myself in a way that few films have.