There’s a shot of a house near the beginning of Annihilation that is one of the prettiest shots of a house I’ve ever seen in a movie. Oh, you want me to talk about the sci-fi parts, the thematic depth, the tense sequences, the unnerving sense of suspense that lingers over the whole picture, the central mystery, or the weirdness of the entire film? Yeah, we’ll get to that. But I just want to say how gorgeous it is up front, because that’s the first thing it presents us with: pretty visuals. The rest work their way into our brain and heart and under our skin as it goes on.
The story follows a biologist and former soldier, Lena (Natalie Portman), who winds up joining a group (made up exclusively of women, which the movie remarks on and then quickly moves on from—they’re all scientists, and that’s what matters) tasked with going into a mysterious thing which is rapidly growing. It looks like a giant bubble someone might’ve blown. But if it keeps growing at this rate, it’ll overtake entire cities, states, and eventually countries. Other groups have gone in and have never been heard from again. There are two theories: (1) something inside kills them or (2) they go crazy and kill each other.
One person did escape. Kane (Oscar Isaac), who is Lena’s husband. The film is told post-mission, so we know she survives, and she’s interviewed by a man in a hazmat suit (Benedict Wong). She tells him what happened over the course of their mission, all the things they saw, and why she’s the only one who emerged from this thing, which the film calls the “Shimmer.” We see what happened as she describes them. And you get no more story points out of me; the less you know going in, the better.
That being said, even if you have seen the trailer, it doesn’t spoil a ton. It takes away some of the surprise at seeing these visuals for the first time, but in terms of what’s really going on? Not really. It also doesn’t really capture the tone of the movie, which is much less of a horror film than is being advertised. There are a few really tense sequences, sure, but they’re not the focus. We’re thrown in pretty quickly and without a life raft; only those willing to swim will actually get a lot of out of Annihilation.
Annihilation is a sci-fi movie for those who are okay with not having their hand held for its entire duration.
It’s smart sci-fi that rewards viewers who are ready to think alongside its characters, who are okay with being challenged, and who accept some ambiguity. You’ll leave with questions, I’m sure, since the film doesn’t answer everything is uncovers, but you’ll get enough and want to watch it again to see if you missed anything. Once you “know”—and you only kind of, sort of, ever will—what it’s all about, you’ll want to replay earlier scenes to see how your new knowledge reframes previous events, if it does at all.
Annihilation is weird and might not even all add up. It succeeds with mood, with thought, with the way the group dynamics play out, with several extended suspenseful sequences, with its central mystery, and with its gorgeous visuals. It has a methodical pace but is never dull. It captures you and doesn’t let you go until the credits—and even then is going to occupy some minds for days afterward. Director Alex Garland, with his sophomore feature, has made another great sci-fi film.
If it has a weakness, it’s in a couple of its supporting characters. We don’t get to know a ton about the non-Lenas of the world. There’s enough, and the characters’ personalities—and the performances that bring them out—do a lot of the heavy lifting, but it’d be an even better film if they were more fleshed-out. Outside of that? It’ll be too weird or ambiguous for some, and there’s a big of CGI near the end that isn’t very good. These are nitpicks. This is a great movie.
Annihilation is a sci-fi movie for those who are okay with not having their hand held for its entire duration. If you like thinking during your movies, are fine with a methodical pace, and don’t mind ambiguity, you’ll be treated to what’s sure to be one of the best science fiction movies of the year—and might wind up as one of the best 2018 movies overall, depending on how the competition shakes out. It’s tense, suspenseful, atmospheric, compelling, gorgeous, has great performances, and is unlike almost anything else you’ll see. It’s an experience.
Conclusion: Annihilation is smart, great, sci-fi.
Recommendation: If it sounds like something you’ll enjoy, you need to see Annihilation right away.