MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1hr 55 min

A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition into a mysterious zone where the laws of nature don't apply.




Alex Garland is hands down one of the most exciting voices we have working in science fiction. After the years he spent turning out first-rate speculative scripts, both original concepts like 28 Days Later and adaptations like Never Let Me Go, Garland made his directorial debut with the tight, contained A.I. masterpiece Ex Machina. With his sophomore feature, Annihilation, Garland freely adapts from Jeff VanderMeer‘s novel of the same name, drastically increasing the scope of the story he’s trying to tell and his ambition along with it.The film stars Natalie Portman as a grieving soldier-scientist, Lena, who hasn’t seen her black-ops husband, Kane (Oscar Issac), for over a year. He left on a mystery mission and never came back. Until one day, he does, wandering into their home absent-minded, distinctly different, and coughing up blood. In short order, Lena finds herself with the opportunity to take the same mission as her husband — head into a mysterious, dangerous place known as Area X in search of answers. Turns out the government has sent in multiple teams; soldiers, animals, even drones, but Kane is the one and only thing to have ever come back.

So Lena heads into Area X alongside four other female scientists and doctors. There’s Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the distant team leader, a psychologist, who has seen team after team disappear into Area X and needs to know what’s in there for herself; Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), an EMT with a history of addiction who is like a lit flame, always threatening to become a dangerous blaze; Radek (Tessa Thompson), a meek scientist with a history of self-abuse, and Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), the friendliest of the bunch, who harbors a dark truth of her own. Together, these wounded, brilliant women head into mystery, and the moment they cross into the luminescent, rainbow-tinged perimeter known as “The Shimmer,” the whole world transforms into a kaleidoscope of impossible biological deviation as they seek to get to the heart of what’s causing the mystifying mutations that greet them at every turn.

This is the top-line story, and one that will thrill genre fans looking for some bravura sci-fi storytelling. Garland pulls freely from VanderMeer’s novel, but fair warning to book fans out there — this is not a straight adaptation, so go in with an open mind. However, what Garland captures so gorgeously is the slow-brewing intrigue and terror that seems to capture the whole of the human experience; the biological, the psychological, and the spiritual. Annihilation targets that gestalt with a heady brew of wonder and horror, and reuniting with a host of his Ex Machina collaborators, including composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salibury, production designer Mark Digby, and cinematographer Rob Hardy, Garland creates a vision of spectacular exploration that is, disquietingly, both familiar and otherworldly in equal measure.Their journey takes them to all manner of stunning, sickening, and occasionally soul-crushing creations, which crawl beneath your skin and lodge in your brain. There is a wonderfully quick and cavalier approach to some of the violence — nature doesn’t care; it preys, it evolves, it is hideous and beautiful all at once, but it is not sentimental. That’s not to say Annihilation is without emotion, but there is an undercurrent of scientific impartiality to the whole hallucinogenic affair. By the time we arrive in the third act, which is sure to spark a debates and turn off a whole lot of your average entertainment-seeking moviegoers (it’s easy to see why Paramount was afraid of this movie), Annihilation has transformed into something of a surreal art piece. A choreographed dance of despair and perseverance, the push and pull of human strength and weakness, Annihilation‘s final act is all-out psychedelia that may leave those only looking at the top-line story scratching their heads when they walk out of the theater.

Because Garland isn’t just telling one linear tale about a deadly expedition, he’s working freely and heavily in the realm of metaphor. Underneath all the screaming bears and shark-toothed gators, Annihilation is a film about self-destruction, in all its forms. The film tells you this over and over again — from the biological failures of cancer and aging, the ways the body turns on itself, to the multitude of human capacities for self-destruction — infidelity, self-harm, addiction, et cetra —  Annihilation is a stunning, sweeping metaphor for the way human beings tear themselves apart. It’s wildly ambitious, occasionally alienating, and consummately perplexing; an irritant to the mind and spirit that demands self-reflection. Garland makes a few minor stumbles on the way to his vision, but his vision is rendered in complete, elegant detail, and even if it takes some time to digest, it’s a meticulously prepared feast for the eyes and the mind.

-Haleigh Fouch