Alex Garland’s first feature captured the hearts and minds of sci-fi fans and the internet — so many dancing Oscar Issac videos! — in 2014. His sophomore directorial effort, Annihilation, is somehow more audacious and ambitious than that effort. And incredibly, it achieves those ambitions. Indeed, Annihilation’s power to subvert expectation in this way is what should keep it on the lips of film enthusiasts for some while to come. It’s not just that the film zigs when it should zag (mostly in a good way), but that it’s success and refinement almost feel revolutionary.
As Lena, Natalie Portman leads a stellar cast that includes Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and Oscar Issac. A soldier turned biologist (and professor at Johns Hopkins, no less), she joins a crew of female scientists who head into an environmental anomaly known as “The Shimmer.” No human or machine that’s entered has returned, presumed dead, returns in alarming condition and draws her into the mystery of it all. She doesn’t share her motivation with the rest of her team, but she’s not the only one who has secrets. Of course, the Shimmer has a way of laying truths bare, even as it forces anyone within to question the nature of life, the universe and everything.
Beautiful and haunting, Annihilation is a gauntlet of sound and color and impossibly big questions. It’s pure, contemplative sci-fi that challenges the viewer over and over and over again. It compels contemplation and doesn’t make concessions to what we might want. There are flaws here if you care to look for them, (not too many, mind), but for this writer, at least, the rare experience of watching something genuinely singular and unlikely unfold is worth whatever else comes. It’s mind-boggling that Alex Garland (anyone else) attempted to make this movie, and even more stunning that he pulled it off. At one moment there’s Jennifer Jason Leigh doing something inexplicably unsettling, then there’s Tessa Thompson quietly provoking all the feels, Gina Rodriguez finding laughs and Natalie Portman in the thick of it all, the nuanced sci-fi hero she might have been already if only she starred in a Rian Johnson star war instead of the prequels. And all of it happens in this gorgeous, terrible place. It’s overwhelming.
A most humble recommendation: see it. Soon. And in a theater. The less you know, the better. And the more shared your experience, the more amplified everything that works about Annihilation will be. And bonus, if you’re an early adopter, you can drag your friends to see it and delight in their reactions while you try to riddle out the answers to all of those lingering questions so you can sound like an authority when the lights go up.