by Andrew Wyatt on Feb 23, 2018

In the past decade, few filmmakers have burst out of the starting gate as strongly as Alex Garland. His remarkable, assured directorial debut, Ex Machina  (2015), signaled that the English novelist (The Beach) and screenwriter (28 Days Later; Never Let Me Go) could tell a nervy, cerebral science-fiction story with images and sound as well as words, exhibiting the kind of polished cinematic eye that typically takes decades to hone. However, the stripped-down elegance of Ex Machina’s plot — two men, one woman, a house, and a battle of wits — is one of the key reasons that Garland’s first feature was so impactful. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that the director’s sophomore film, Annihilation, would seem comparatively ambitious, expansive, and (unfortunately) unfocused.

With his new feature, Garland breaks free from Ex Machina’s tightly circumscribed chamber drama, delving into planet-threatening alien menaces and repellent xenobiological horror. It’s broadly familiar science-fiction territory, descended from Atomic Age tales of terror like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Blob (1958), as well as later, nastier VFX tours de force like The Thing (1982). However, Annihilation plainly has ambitions that are closer to those of mind-bending genre landmarks like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Stalker (1979), where the thriller elements are less crucial than aesthetic verve and philosophical depth. While Garland’s feature never approaches the artistry and profundity exhibited by such films, Annihilation is still a damn fine work of science-fiction cinema, one that steadily improves as its plot gets increasingly weird, unhurried, and abstract. It’s perhaps best approached as a film of images and mood rather than ideas, given that the screenplay’s ideas are haphazardly conveyed and more likely to elicit head-scratching than awe.

Adapted from the award-winning 2014 novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, Garland’s film begins at the end: Looking anxious and haunted, a woman named Lena (Natalie Portman), sits within a medical isolation chamber. As a throng of wide-eyed scientists and military personnel peer at her through the glass walls, she is questioned by an official (Benedict Wong) in a hazmat suit, who wants to know what the hell happened to her and to the other four people on her team. And so Lena explains what in fact happened, through a succession of twisty flashbacks that flit through the recent and less recent past.

An Army veteran turned biology professor, Lena is married to an active-duty soldier, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who often disappears for long stretches on shadowy missions. His most recent assignment results in a 12-month absence with no communication, during which Lena’s efforts to uncover even the most negligible tidbits of information — Is her husband even alive? — are met with pitiless silence from the military. Then one day, Kane strolls into the couple’s home, as though he had just popped out for a gallon of milk and gotten lost along the way. Lena is initially overjoyed, but her husband’s demeanor is unnervingly bizarre: He is dazed and sluggish, and responds to even the simplest queries with dead-eyed rambling. Abruptly, Kane is struck by a seizure, and shortly thereafter both he and Lena are snatched up by government agents.

Lena later awakens in "Area X", a sleek military facility somewhere near the Gulf Coast. A chilly government psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) appears and explains the situation — to the extent that any explanation is possible. Beyond the facility’s perimeter is a phenomenon termed the Shimmer, a bubble of iridescent ectoplasm that surrounds … well, no one is certain, exactly. The phenomenon seems to be centered on a lighthouse within a state park, but it has progressively expanded over the course of a couple of years, even as the government has quietly evacuated towns and constructed facilities like Area X to study this bizarre energy field. Several investigative teams have entered the region delimited by the Shimmer, but to date only one person has returned from these excursions: Lena’s husband, who is presently comatose and feebly clinging to life.

Ventress plans to lead the next expedition, which carries a sense of amplified urgency due to the uncomfortable proximity of the ever-growing Shimmer. Her team includes gregarious paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), sharp-eyed geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny), and diffident physicist Josie (Tess Thompson). Lena eventually joins the mission as well, not so much asking for a slot on the team as demanding one, although she conceals her personal connection to Kane from everyone but Ventress. The psychologist relents with a shrug — subtly cajoling Lena into tagging along seems to have been Ventress’ aim all along — and soon the women are suited up, scientific gadgets and assault rifles in hand, to cross into the forbidding unknown of the Shimmer.

What they find beyond the rainbow-hued membrane is essentially a grab bag of science-fiction strangeness. Almost immediately after venturing into the Shimmer, the women seem to lose several days of time — Lena awakens in a tent she doesn’t remember pitching, and an inventory of the group’s supplies reveals nearly a week’s worth of depleted rations. Neither electronic communications nor simple hand compasses appear to function properly, and the women are soon beset by a suffocating, burgeoning sense of anxiety and disorientation. The most conspicuous characteristics of the Shimmer, however, are the flora and fauna that seem to be unaccountably mingled into impossible hybrid organisms. Watercolor-hued flowers from manifold species sprout from the same twisting vines. Enormous, albino alligators with rows of shark-like teeth glide through the wooded swamps. Garish, crazy-quilt patches of mold and lichen cover decrepit buildings, the fungus growing so rapidly it can be observed with the naked eye.

Eventually, the team stumbles on evidence of the previous expedition, the very one from which Kane returned as the sole survivor. What they discover among their predecessors’ effects unsettles the already-spooked women to the core, and in due course these revelations crack their shaky alliance along pre-existing fault lines. Although its visual elements echo a plethora of genre influences — including unexpected touchstones like The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), The Relic (1997), and the Hellboy films (2004 and 2006) — Annihilation generally follows the post-Aliens (1986) creature-feature model for most of its duration. To wit: Notwithstanding their knowledge, experience, and firepower, the women are inexorably picked off one at a time by unclassifiable things lurking in the shadows of the Shimmer's increasingly hallucinatory environment. By the time one of the characters looks at her hands and sees, with revolted disbelief, that the whorls of her fingerprints are moving, it’s apparent that psychological deterioration will also play a role in the group’s dissolution.

Garland’s approach to the film’s more straightforward monster-in the-dark components is gratifyingly polished, replete with sharp jump-scares, buzzing tension, and moments of genuinely shocking gore. (One shrewdly fleeting shot of a face cleaved open by a creature’s fangs is guaranteed to elicit gasps.) The viewer is consistently aware that the characters are enclosed within a bubble, lending even the film’s wide exterior shots a sense of knotted claustrophobia, as though the Shimmer were a surreal shared nightmare — irrational, hermetic, inescapable. The director and the film's cinematographer Rob Hardy, who also lensed Ex Machina, lean a bit too heavily on a dense, blue-and-brown gloom in the nocturnal sequences. They tend to conceal threats by slathering on unsightly murk and blinding lens flare rather than employing light and shadow in a more cunning manner.

The film is much more aesthetically compelling in daylight, when it simply gapes at the florid loveliness of the mutating forests, which glow with the uncanny, nacreous illumination that filters through the Shimmer’s dome. Visually speaking, Annihilation is at its best when it lingers uncomfortably on its most alien sights, such as a windswept beach dotted with trees seemingly carved out of glimmering crystal, or a human corpse that has been horrifically rent asunder by tendrils of fruiting fungus. However, the film also boasts its share of more prosaic but still-striking imagery, harkening back to the exceptional mise-en-scène that Garland and Hardy brought to Ex Machina. (A haunting shot of two clasped hands, captured through the prism of a water glass, is just one of Annihilation’s memorable, more intimate gestures.) The film's score, by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, is a chilling work of heaving electronic thrums and whines, and it does an exceptional job of slithering under the skin. A recurring acoustic guitar motif connected to Lena's more domestic flashbacks almost wears out its welcome ... until the composers reintroduce and unnervingly distort it within the alien context of the Shimmer.

Lamentably, there’s a somewhat formulaic aspect to the film’s long middle stretch, as the characters slowly turn on one another or succumb to one of the Shimmer's gestalt biological horrors, often at the precise junctures one would expect. At times, Annihilation feels more like a finely mounted genre exercise than a story with its own exceptional urgency. Still, Garland seems steadfastly engaged with the familiar beats of the creature-feature form. Another filmmaker might have half-assed their way through all the searching, hiding, running, screaming, and variations on the doomed query, “Did you hear that?” Garland revels in this icy bath of terror, never allowing the film to crack a smile that would disrupt its potent, doom-laden atmosphere.

The screenplay is studded with the sort of ludicrous sci-fi dialogue that would never emerge from a real-world scientist’s lips. (“It’s like these plants are stuck in a continuous mutation!” What?) This is the primary reason why the one-note secondary characters in Lena’s team never feel entirely convincing, as expert field researchers or as flesh-and-blood people. Then again, expendable, one-note characters are the bedrock of a solid science-fiction thriller. To her credit, Leigh gets quite a bit of mileage out of Ventress’ standoffish schtick, constantly ticking between grouchy indifference, dry amusement, and Ahab-style zeal. Portman, meanwhile, delivers one her most seamless portrayals since Black Swan (2010). On the page, Lena isn’t exactly a complex, enthralling protagonist, yet Portman fills her Army boots with tremendous steel and deftness, navigating some outlandish sci-fi situations in an unfailingly credible manner.

It’s in Annihilation’s final stretch that the film begins to evolve from mere spine-tingling entertainment into something much bolder, even downright breathtaking. There are signs in the lead-up to its mind-melting conclusion that the film's concerns run deeper than popcorn-flick scares. Of particular note is the way that Garland weaves in snippets of Lena’s married life with Kane, which at first seems joyful but is gradually revealed as quietly malignant. (The most resonant of these scenes is little more than one of those passing, discomfiting moments where one partner silently, despondently tries to intuit what the other is thinking from across the couch.) Garland never quite gets all the film’s would-be thematic fragments to cohere into a robust, intelligible whole, and the film at times suffers from his determination to linger excessively and unnecessarily on pseudo-subplots, e.g., Lena’s affair with an academic colleague. However, the film’s most fully developed theme is right there in the title, and Leigh’s dyspeptic psychologist comes closest to enunciating it: Everyone has a self-destructive compulsion of one form or another, suggesting that some primeval need to obliterate the self is encoded in the human genome. How exactly this jibes with the film's final mysteries is anyone's guess.

By the time the characters reach the lighthouse at the epicenter of the Shimmer, Annihilation has slowly shifted into a mode of dark, painterly surrealism. It would not be an exaggeration to assert that the film’s final 15 minutes or so approach the climactic “Star Gate” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the ground-breaking “Part 8” of last year’s Twin Peaks: The Return in terms of disaffecting, live-wire strangeness. Sheer sensory experience takes primacy over trivial things like pacing, narrative, and logic. Although largely unfathomable on an initial viewing, this passage is utterly mesmerizing and the best part of Annihilation by an enormous margin. To say more would detract from what is a singular cinematic experience, and such wonders are too few and far between to be diluted by from-the-hip critical description and decoding. Ultimately, Garland himself offers little clarification regarding the film’s climactic events, although he can’t resist punctuating his feature with the sort of confounding, figurative question mark that would feel right at home in a mid-century atomic-monster romp. This gesture is fitting, given Annihilation’s uneasy hybridization of early-’60s B-picture workmanship and late-’60s artistic daring. The former makes for satisfying science fiction, but the latter throws into sharp relief how run-of-the-mill all the ravenous monster business truly is.

Rating: B-