In a way, Annihilation is like Arrival meets Event Horizon meets The Abyss, and in another, it’s not like anything. The premise feels vaguely familiar for a sci-fi premise. But what writer/director Alex Garland does with it (and Garland’s version is apparently very different from the Jeff VanderMeer book on which Annihilation is based) feels unique. In fact, it’s such a model of “show don’t tell” storytelling that I kept wondering how a book about this could even be written. Whatever else it might be, Annihilation is such a singular expression of cinematic language that trying to describe it with words feels inadequate.
Natalie Portman plays Lena, a soldier-turned-biologist (sure fine whatever) whose missing husband (Oscar Isaac) has unexpectedly returned from deployment acting strangely. She wakes up to find herself in a government-controlled black site, and winds up on a team of female scientists — along with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny — sent to investigate “The Shimmer,” an environmental anomaly that could be anything from a religious event to a tear in space-time.
I don’t know how much more I should tell you about it other than that. It’s a place where weird shit happens. Also, there’s a skull bear.
The usual way sci-fi movies like this work is that there’s a big mystery, then a few Spielberg-face scenes where the characters confront that mystery, then we find out what it is and the protagonist has to kill it and/or save the Earth or protect her kid or keep the universe from imploding or whatever. In The Cloverfield Paradox, the protagonist had to accomplish nothing less than inventing cold fusion, saving the Earth, killing a bad guy, saving her daughter from a parallel dimension, and getting back home to her husband. The movie lays out its mystery, and then there’s always that moment where it has to lay its cards on the table. At that point a movie either expands the possibilities of its own universe and improves on what came before it, like in Arrival, or blows a good hand like in Passengers, or you realize it’s just been bluffing all along like in The Cloverfield Paradox.