Annihilation is far from being a perfect movie, but goddammit is it good. It’s derivative as all hell (imagine if Aliens had a baby with The Thing and that baby married Tarkovsky’s Stalker), but never in an ostentatious way. This isn’t a film-lover’s masturbation fantasy of references. It’s a story-lover’s genuine affection for the craft, lovingly cherishing details, even cliches, and archetypes and running wild with them instead of having to subvert every expectation. Sometimes allowing a story to reach logical conclusions unto itself is satisfying enough without having to show off how clever you are.
Alex Garland writes and directs, based on the novel by James VanderMeer. Alex Gardland has always been a talented writer, especially under the direction of longtime filmmaking partner Danny Boyle, but has really stepped into his own as a director. There seems to be a longstanding debate as to whether Garland suffers from third act problems with his movies, but I disagree. I feel like Sunshine and The Beach sure did (both directed by Danny Boyle) but 28 Days Later, Ex Machina and Annihilation (hell, let’s throw Dredd in there, too) have all been terrific all the way through. 28 Days Later seems to be contentious, but I think everything that happens during the final act is great stuff.
Annihilation tells the story of five women who enter an area known as “the shimmer,” a sort of freak occurrence on our planet whose existence remains a total mystery. Several expeditions inside have yielded no results–no one seems to make it out alive. Their theory is that whoever goes in is either killed by something, or the people who go in lose their minds and kill each other. Venturing in is, in essence, a suicide mission (the nature of suicide versus self-destruction is discussed between characters).
Inside the shimmer, DNA begins to re-code itself. Species begin to cross-breed with each other. Plants with other plants, animals with plants, humans with animals–the shimmer is like a beautiful nightmare brought to life.
This is one of those movies where everyone on the team has a specialty. Natalie Portman plays the ex-soldier, now-biologist professor whose husband ventured into the shimmer a year earlier. There’s the psychologist, the paramedic, the physicist and the geologist. Going under orders, they’ve eschewed the traditional military-led expedition, because each platoon has wound up dead, so the idea is to have more of a clinical, scientific eye toward discovery.
Annihilation is like a perfect marriage of sci-fi, horror and intelligent philosophy, without ever being heavy handed. It has some incredibly well-done scenes, one in particular with a bear-like creature that cries out like a woman dying. It has to be seen to be believed.
Paramount, the studio that released Annihilation, deemed it “too intellectual” and basically sabotaged any possibility that it would be successful. The marketing was limited, its release barely anticipated, basically relegating it to a cult film before it ever had a chance to become anything more than that. Truth be told, it’s probably because it’s a film led by a predominantly-woman cast, and people are assholes, so I think the studio chickened out and tried to cut its losses, without ever fully committing to it. “Too intellectual,” is an insulting term for audiences–one which doesn’t even begin to accurately describe Annihilation. It’s an exciting film with great special effects and some great action set pieces that doesn’t insult its audience. It wants to engage with us, not patronize us. So, do yourself a favor and see it whenever you can. It’s only March, but it’s destined to be one of the best films of the year.