Written and Directed by: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Oscar Isaac.
Rated: R for violence, bloody images, language, and some sexuality.
You know that feeling when you really enjoyed a movie or TV show and a little later, you find yourself saying, “but what about…?” The nickname for that is “fridge logic,” and “Annihilation,” based loosely on the bestselling novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, has some major fridge logic issues. Everything else about it is pretty great, so if you’re looking more for an experience than for an intellectual challenge it’s a good bet.
Our hero, Lena (Natalie Portman), is a former-soldier, current-professor who teaches oncology to medical students. Her still-a-soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaacs) has been missing for a year. When he shows up in their house, disoriented and largely unresponsive, she’s thrilled – until he collapses, and the two of them are abducted from the ambulance by militarized operatives in all black. Kane was one of the last team of people sent in to investigate “the shimmer,” a growing field of shimmering air that is so dangerous that nobody who’s gone in has come back out – until Kane. Lena volunteers to join the next mission into the shimmer, an all-woman team led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Each of these woman soldier-scientists have personal reasons to go on what is almost certainly a suicide mission, and they each react to the strangeness in the shimmer differently. The weird and beautiful and horrifying visuals for the vast majority of the film are stunning. Unnaturally bright colors, strange flowers and creatures, and so on. Sometimes it seems benevolent, like when Lena spots a small, deer-like creature that stares at her. Other times it’s creepy, like when the deer-like creature goes through what looks a lot like cell division and creates a double of itself before they both go bounding off. Or when one of the characters has tendrils with tiny flowers start growing out from under her skin.
There are strong veins of horror, both cosmic and practical, running through this film. Is the shimmer caused by something intelligent? What does it want, if anything? What if it’s unstoppable and grows to cover the entire world? Less abstractly, we meet a white alligator that is growing rings of teeth like a shark and is incredibly difficult to kill. There’s a good bit of body horror, as well, so if the thought of something alien growing inside of you is too gross to deal with, steer clear.
The acting is all solid. Portman and Leigh clearly relish getting to play complex women who are strong and capable. Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny as the rest of the team are given a bit less to work with, but handle it well. These women are all driven, but all different. It’s a pleasant surprise for a sci-fi/horror movie to not only center on women but write them as actual people and not just lady-shaped cardboard cutouts.
What will spoil the film for some folks is the fridge logic. There’s a recurring physical symptom that’s never explained, we get a violent encounter that leaves no injury – not even scratches or torn fabric, and the agency sending the teams in keeps doing the same thing and expecting a different result (I came up with a handful of different tactics they could have used, but apparently never did). They’re mostly possible to overlook if you’re sufficiently into the movie, but for some folks they may be serious enough to be a dealbreaker.
Like “Ex Machina,” writer-director Alex Garland’s last film, “Annihilation” is definitely not for everyone. It’s beautiful and nightmarish, and has a lot to recommend it while still being very flawed. If you just want to see a sci-fi horror movie and aren’t expecting a satisfying brain puzzle, it’s a great choice.