Like the team of scientists at its center, Annihilation boldly marches into formidable territory, where it might, quite frankly, be out of its depth. This is a film, after all, that evokes not one but two science-fiction masterpieces from Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker and Solaris). If neither Annihilation nor those scientists come away unscathed from this ambitious endeavor, there’s plenty to admire about the attempt.
Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist mourning the loss of her husband (Oscar Isaac), who disappeared while on a special-ops mission a year earlier. Lonely and distraught, she volunteers for a top-secret expedition of her own: a research trip into a quarantined area on the American coast, where an asteroid crash has resulted in bizarre, biological mutations. Inside this zone—along with fellow scientists played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny—she encounters bizarre plants, dangerous animals, and increasingly troubling flashbacks to the last time she and her husband were together.
These flashbacks are where writer-director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) leans on Stalker and Solaris, both of which eerily wed the cosmic and the personal, connecting its characters corporeal explorations to the uncharted territory in their heads. As the team goes deeper into The Shimmer—so named because its boundaries are marked by a translucent veil with a rainbow sheen, something like an enormous soap bubble—their questions become knottier and more existential. By the time we reach the lighthouse that signals ground zero for the asteroid strike, Annihilation indulges in a wackadoo climax that filters Lena’s personal history through a combination of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Fountain.
If I liked those films far more than Annihilation, it’s because I found them both, while perplexing, far more penetrable. I’d say the same of another movie that came to mind while watching Annihilation: The Fits, a lo-fi indie in which a competitive girls’ dance team suddenly suffers a series of unexplained seizures. That premise—and director Anna Rose Holmer’s softly supernatural way of handling of it—allowed The Fits to be a metaphor for many things at once (spiritual awakening, say, or the onset of adolescence). It was mysterious, yet uncomplicated, so that no matter what meaning you ascribed to it, the aesthetic elements could bolster your interpretation. Theoretically, Annihilation should work the same way. It could be about many things, including the same thing Ex Machina was about: what it means to be human (though this time in regard to the natural world rather than artificial intelligence). Yet no matter what significance Annihilation has for you, it’s so overstuffed with inexplicable elements that you’d be hard-pressed to make them all fit. There isn’t the sort of thematic-aesthetic coherence that a truly great, deep-think, sci-fi picture needs.
At the same time, the movie marks a significant step forward for Garland as a visual stylist, especially considering he’s working on a much bigger scale. He continues his penchant for imagery of distortion, expanding it beyond everyday details—Portman and Isaac’s enfolded hands seen through a glass of water, say, or the shower-curtain effect of quarantine tents—and applying it to something like the “walls” of The Shimmer. In almost every scene set inside this zone, you’ll notice a glistening, rainbow effect in the corner of the screen, a subtle reminder that we’re not in Kansas anymore. There is also an encounter with a bear—well, The Shimmer’s version of a bear—that is downright horrifying in conception and execution. The same could be said of the moment the team discovers a deceased member of an earlier expedition. His fate (I’ll just say it involves an intestinal worm) results in a grotesque display that—since we’re talking mutations—looks like the result of cross-breeding H.R. Giger’s Alien designs with John Carpenter’s The Thing.
There isn’t the sort of thematic-aesthetic coherence that a truly great sci-fi picture needs.
Annihilation also includes a sequence that, narratively and thematically, I can’t make heads or tails of, but still enthralled me purely in its use of costume design and movement. I wouldn’t want to spoil the details, so I’ll only say that it involves Lena’s encounter with a doppelganger of sorts and plays out like an extended mime/dance sequence. It’s disturbing, bewildering, and beautiful. If only I could assign it some meaning that could be carried through the rest of the film. It did serve as a reminder that Portman played a dancer in Black Swan, another head-scratcher from another director who likes to swing for the fences (Darren Aronofsky of The Fountain, no less). Portman is a daring actress, and I wish Annihilation had managed to pull off that cosmic/personal connection in a way that better served her performance. The rest of the talented cast gets even less to work with, as the other women on the team often behave and talk according to the needs of the script, rather than as trained professionals on an unprecedented expedition.
So where does that leave me? Eager to read others’ interpretations of Annihilation, especially those that find a throughline from the beginning of the film to its final moments. Entirely successful or not, we need more movies like this: as eager to confound us as delight us, and willingly open to our own interpretive ends.