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.
Alex Garland — who also directed Ex Machina, probably the best sci-fi film of the last five years — seems to understand that a big mystery is better if it stays ineffable. He finds a way for Annihilation to lay its cards on the table without revealing much at all. It has that scene a lot of movies have, where the scientist stares off into the distance and mutters some quasi-extemporaneous explanation of everything that just happened, and wouldn’t you know it, it sounds crazy, but it just might be right.
Annihilation has that scene, only the explanation doesn’t really make any sense at all. And yet it feels right, because how could anyone put into words what Garland is about to show? He utilizes the storytelling capabilities specific to cinema to create something that can’t be cheapened by exposition. It leaves you with something that’s at once a bit of a headscratcher, but also strange and singular and wonderful.
Garland has a way of using visual analogies that feel like foreshadowing — repeated shots of cells dividing, of hands refracted through a glass of water — what Donald Kaufman in Adaptation might’ve called an “image system.” (“I’ve chosen the motif of broken mirrors to show my protagonist’s fragmented self.”) It creates a sense of anticipation, where you know he’s playing at something, but what exactly? Only later do you realize that they aren’t foreshadowing at all, but mere parallels, connected on an abstract level that feels right in a way you can’t quite explain. Trying to pin down his meaning is like trying to pin a watermelon seed to the table with your finger.
Garland’s other strokes of genius are that he embraces schlock and doesn’t try to falsely inflate the stakes of his story. So much sci-fi consists of writers trying to over-intellectualize a child-like “what if.” What if we could clone humans? What if we could fly to another planet? What if aliens landed on Earth? These stories are universal precisely because we’ve all had these questions, yet so many filmmakers try to paper over the youthful curiosity driving their stories with arch philosophizing and tedious introspection.
Annihilation, by comparison, feels lean. Garland doesn’t position the story as some grand philosophical inquisition, he merely delivers it as a straightforward story happening to a handful of people, with broader implications you can figure out for yourself. It’s a story about people, not MacGuffins. And he doesn’t shy away from visceral, horror movie thrills and scares the way a lot of sci-fi films often do. (See again: the skull bear, delicious schlock that feels vaguely reminiscent of the Donnie Darko bunny.)
All of this has the effect of making Annihilation feel like the cinematic equivalent of a writer who doesn’t need big words to sound smart. It proudly exists on a visceral, sub-verbal level; that’s part of the magic of it. It’s a movie that’s easy to spoil and hard to describe, where mystery is most of the point and interpretation tends to cheapen. Which is to say: just go see it.