Annihilation- a trippy, cerebral experience for sure- succeeds in testing our patience as it methodically trudges through the Florida swamp in search of answers to... well... something. What those answers are will be left up to the viewer, since Garland stops short of doing that heaving lifting for you. For those that see it through to the end, the reward is an experience both viscerally beautiful and intellectually satisfying.
Perhaps even more important than the answers, are the questions. Annihilation posits more than what is asked of a standard alien/monster film. It digs deeper. It digs at the very core of what flaws us as humans. It preys upon a primal urge to succumb to our inherent desire to find difficult answers within us, at all cost.
Appropriately called "the shimmer", questions abound regarding its origin, and what lies within. It's perceived as a threat, as covert military ops have been sent in to investigate, never to be heard from again.
In the outside world, ex-Army biologist, Lena (Natalie Portman), reluctantly trudges through her day to day existence as a professor at Johns Hopkins and as a grieving widow. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), away on a secret military mission for the past year, was considered killed in action. She is broken, and it's a theme that will resurface many times throughout the film.
When Kane unexpectedly returns, he is clearly a shell of the man he once was. He is distant... almost shell-shocked... and unable to provide answers to Lena as to what has happened to him. He becomes violently ill, and the ambulance he and Lena are in is intercepted by armed military soldiers who rush them away to an unknown facility, in a location known as Area X.
The head of the facility is Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a cold, matter of fact scientist looking for her own answers to what is happening. She recruits Lena, along with paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny), and physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson).
Refreshingly, Garland chose to write these characters, roles traditionally reserved for ripped alpha males, as five smart, skilled women. There is no male savior calling the shots- just these women risking everything to find answers, knowing they might not survive the ordeal. The film doesn't hold this up for acknowledgement; it just exists as if this is the Hollywood norm, and it's a better film as a result.
The shimmer is fraught with dangers inherent to the Florida swamp, but with some additional twists. One scene, involving a bear, succeeds as one of the most haunting moments I've ever seen on film, and it will stick with you long after you've left the theater.
Josie discovers that the DNA of living organisms within the shimmer are refracting, causing them to combine together. Plants, animals, and now people are gradually becoming one species. The landscape is both beautiful and haunting as nature takes full command of all life. And this is where Garland begins to explore some deeper meanings, remaining mostly ambiguous about the finer details.
The film tries to dig into the psyche of these characters, sometimes outwardly testing them as they go about their mission. Other times, forcing them to reflect on why they even wanted to come in the first place. Do we as humans, not desire to release what we find broken within ourselves? It is so easy to relinquish ourselves to that power, and to watch elements of the film play that out is fascinating.
When we finally get to the end, Garland really ramps up the sci-fi elements, culminating in a remarkable scene between Lena and a faceless, three dimensional mirror image of herself. It is a gorgeously choreographed sequence that more than pays off any of the monotony you may have felt getting to this point.
The film also works as simply a tight science fiction-horror-thriller, with plenty of those genre elements incorporated into the story to appease fans.
The cast of five talented actresses is locked in, lead by the always on point Portman, and a fantastic turn by Leigh. In the end, even with significantly varied screen time, each character feels fleshed out.
Annihilation is an instant classic in the sci-fi genre, and I expect it to age quite well, where it will one day be looked upon as one of the greats.
4.5 out of 5