Holy cow, no wonder they sold it off.
Actually, that’s not fair. Netflix may have purchased international rights to ANNIHILATION, the new film from writer-director Alex Garland, but it is still getting a theatrical release here in the U.S., and if you’re even remotely interested in smart, challenging, adult science-fiction, then get yourself to the biggest, nicest, loudest theater you can and enjoy it as this filmmaker kicks your face in.
My guess is the reason Paramount got nervous is because this is, by design, a film that does not give you all of the information that you have been trained to think you need from a movie. This can lead to audiences getting frustrated, and I get that. When I was leaving a screening of The Last Jedi, I was stopped by some friends who were fans of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, the first of which was the inspiration for this film, and they seemed agitated to learn that I had liked Annihilation. Since they’d already seen it as well, they wanted to know why I liked it, and we stood there and discussed it for a good 10 minutes or so. The longer I talked about it, the more I realized how much I liked the film, but also how completely Garland seemed to have shrugged off the novel he was adapting. This isn’t a literal translation from page to screen, and anyone expecting that is going to walk away disappointed. It’s a reaction to the book, not an adaptation of it. Garland seems to have responded to the ideas and the mood of the novel and then built something that approaches those ideas, but in his own way. If you’re familiar with his work, then you have some idea what you’ll be getting here, but clearly, as he gets older and he gains confidence and control as a director, he’s simply focusing that voice in an increasingly pure way.
Annihilation stars Natalie Portman as a biologist whose husband works for the military, and when he disappears, she is left without any answers. His mysterious reappearance only complicates things, and she is brought in on a secret. There is a crash site in the southern United States where an alien ecosystem has taken root, and every group they send in has met with disaster. Her husband (played by a disturbing Oscar Isaac) was in the most recent group, and her contact with him after his return makes her a candidate to head inside with the next group. The movie is simply her expedition and the realizations she makes as she ventures further and further into Area X, behind a phenomenon they’ve named “The Shimmer.”
I’m not sure I buy the idea that aliens would invade us like soldiers landing on a beach, with spaceships and landing parties and a concrete plan for what they’re going to do when they redecorate. Instead, I suspect that an “invasion” would look far more like what Garland has imagined here — a biological creeping takeover in which one life form simply strangles another. The title of the film is telling, because this is not a movie in which we come into contact with aliens that we can communicate with. Part of the interaction here is that these things are genuinely alien, other, and beyond communication. They almost don’t seem to recognize us as something worth conversation or regard. We are just one more thing on this new planet that must be absorbed and deconstructed and reborn. That is terrifying to me, because you can’t reason with an organic process. You can’t negotiate with the natural order. This is a film built on a foundation of terror about absolute erasure, an encounter with something that not only destroys us, but which wipes away our existence completely.
So much of what we are as people is based on trying to make a mark on the Universe, with our culture existing at least in part as a way of planting a flag that says to anyone or anything that comes after us, “We were here, and we thought and we dreamed and we laughed and we loved and we fought and we were good and we were bad and more than anything, goddammit, we tried.” And in Annihilation, we finally come face to face with something that connects to that larger Universe, something that proves that there is more than we have seen so far, and we look directly into that face, and when it looks back, it looks right through us because of how little we matter. That is devastating, and there is a bleakness to this film that may well leave people unsettled.
The cast is great, and Garland clearly wants to give his actors room to really make these characters live and breathe. There’s something of a magic trick to it in an adaptation of VanderMeer’s work, since he writes in a way that is almost intentionally oblique. Much of his work seems to be designed to force you to have a reaction, to bring something of yourself to the process. I find his writing upsetting in a way that I really like, because it’s nothing I can pinpoint exactly. It exerts an influence as you read it, suggesting this bleak hopelessness, as if the Universe has its thumb on you and there’s nothing you can do about it. He communicates dread in a way that feels effortless on his part. You can’t really see the effort, but it’s there, and it’s always working on you as you read. Garland’s done a great job of capturing that here, and it’s clear that his actors are all in tune with him, all working towards that same disquiet. Jennifer Jason Leigh is an all-time fave of mine, and part of what I love about her is a sort of stubborn, flinty quality. It’s perfect for the leader of the group, and there are some rich, well-explored dynamics between her, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny that play out as they venture into this landscape that is so deeply changed by whatever it has come in contact with.
Part of what Area X seems to do to those who step into it is a sort of emotional scourging, turning you inside out in a figurative sense. Then again, there are places where it appears that Area X will also happily turn you inside out literally. It’s like Tarkovsky by way of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and there are definitely monsters here. I’ve written before about how much I hate and fear bears, and people seem to think that’s funny. Alex Garland gets it, though, and he’s created something here — a bear that screams in the human voices of the people it has eaten — that I immediately added to my own personal nightmare catalog. I’ll be seeing that shit in my dreams, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.
The further the group goes, the worse it gets, and like 2001, there comes a point where the film abandons easy narrative language in an effort to impart how it might feel to come in contact with something beyond our understanding or experience. I think it’s harrowing and beautiful and oddly emotional, but I also get it if someone doesn’t get the same thing out of that final act. Garland took a big swing here, and while this may not be getting the same kind of big push that studios put behind most blockbusters, it’s hard to complain about Paramount’s choice to let Garland keep his vision for the film intact. There’s really no easy way to make this into another type of film, and while Paramount may have wanted another Arrival, that’s not what they got. It’s almost the anti-Arrival, as this seems to say there is no order to things, and we are all just galactic worm-food at some point.
Tech credits are over-the-moon great. Rob Hardy’s photography can feel like a dream one moment and a nightmare the next, but it is clearly grounded in a sense of place, treating Area X like it is a real location, not a “fantasy set,” thereby allowing Mark Digby’s production design to shine. I love the score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, and Glenn Freemantle’s sound design is practically a character here. Annihilation may not be an easy sell, and it may not make much of a mark at the box office as a result, but Alex Garland has once again delivered an essential, visceral, adult science fiction experience, and wherever he goes from here, I will happily follow.
Running time: 115 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic