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“Annihilation” Movie Review

As I wrote in my 2017 top 10 column, I love the moment in a film when you know you’re in good hands. And the earlier, the better. Those scenes that make you sit up and take notice, that make you go “Oh yeah, this is gonna be great!” In Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” – now available on streaming and disc – it was a small moment with big consequences. After an opening scene that’s dripping with intrigue, where biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) is interrogated by Lomax (Benedict Wong), the film cuts to a meteor rocketing toward Earth. The “camera” is positioned right behind it such that the screen is engulfed in the flame of its passing. And the soundtrack? No theater rumbling roar or ear shattering scream that we often hear in movies (whether scientifically possible or not). Just a plaintive acoustic guitar.

It’s beautiful, but as we’ll come to realize, hugely significant.

I haven’t read Jeff VanderMeer’s book on which this film is based, but my understanding is that this adaptation follows a very different track. That’s probably not surprising to fans of Alex Garland. He’s a filmmaker who’s both a lover of genre and fiercely independent. This is only his second feature as director, though he’s written a number of projects, including Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later.” If you saw “Ex Machina,” Garland’s directorial debut – and you should if you haven’t – it’ll give you a sense of his fertile imagination as well as the chilly intellectual and emotional temperature of “Annihilation.”

Lena’s husband, a serviceman named Kane (Oscar Isaac), returns home after being presumed KIA while on a secret mission. He’s disoriented – he can’t tell Lena where he was, what he was doing, or how long he’s been back. As he’s rushed to the hospital after convulsing and coughing up blood, his ambulance is intercepted by a government agency. Lena learns that her husband was investigating the meteor crash site, which is located at a lighthouse in the southern coastal United States. A large, membranous bubble has formed around it and it’s expanding. The area is appropriately deemed “the Shimmer.” Many have gone in to investigate, but Kane is the only person to have come back. A group of women is to be sent on a research mission, the theory being that all previous teams have been men or mix gendered, so maybe changing this variable will change the result. The group consists of psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), and scientists Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (Tessa Thompson). And now Lena.

“Annihilation” Movie Review

Astonishingly, the film carries a price tag of $40 million. It looks like it cost twice that much. Garland and his collaborators – production designer Mark Digby, set decorator Michelle Day, and cinematographer Rob Hardy among them – craft visuals that are at once horrifying and alluring. A man seemingly exploded from inside, like something out of Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” with his remains spread across the wall of a drained pool. The remains themselves have developed pastel-colored growths resembling mold or coral. Many shots include a prismatic glare, sunlight filtered through the Shimmer, indicating the pervasiveness of this presence. And there’s a scene involving a bear that I won’t spoil here, but suffice it to say it hit me on a deeply existential level. It’s not terrifying in the look-out-there’s-a-knife-wielding-maniac-behind-you way. It’s terrifying in the sense that what you’re seeing and hearing – especially hearing – shouldn’t be. And yet, there it is.

Indeed, “Annihilation” is a thrilling and disturbing slice of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. In part, it’s about how the universe is, at best, indifferent. And at worst? Well, you’ll just have to see. But the film is also about the intersection between creation and destruction (or…annihilation). On a cellular level, a relationship level and a societal level. One character has cancer, another cuts herself, “to feel alive.” Still another has engaged in an affair. And as the women go farther into the Shimmer, the group dynamic begins to break down. Dr. Ventress describes these impulses explicitly: “Almost none of us commit suicide, and almost all of us self-destruct.”

The Shimmer itself is capable of rearranging genetic codes and combining them with others. When told that it’s destroying everything, Lena counters that it’s creating something new. But this is most chillingly dramatized in a scene involving the team member who cuts herself. For the first time in the film, she wears a short-sleeve shirt and we see the scars on her arms. Then something happens – something new comes of that destruction. It’s beautiful and will also send a shiver down your spine.

I’ve been kicking myself that I didn’t get this review out while the film was in theaters. Paramount Pictures gave it a modest marketing push and sold off the international rights to Netflix. They were concerned that the film was too cerebral and whacko for major box office success, and so viewers weren’t able to see it on a big screen outside the US. But having re-visited it on disc at home, it absolutely holds up. Studios rarely make science fiction films of this sort – big, ambitious, smart, genuinely disturbing. And when they’re this good, it’s important to support them.

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Garrett is an entertainment professional living in the Los Angeles area. In his free time, he's a shark hunter, Jedi Knight, Kaiju wrangler and dog owner. He also edits and contributes to movie discussions at 3byThree.

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18 thoughts on ““Annihilation” Movie Review

  1. I had seen the trailer for this before one of the Star Wars and thought at the time that it didn’t look interesting. Which is sad given it sounds like it is actually a great movie I’d have enjoyed. I’ll add this to my already long list of reasons to try to avoid trailers and try as much as possible to not infer anything about the quality of the movie from them.

    Astonishingly, the film carries a price tag of $40 million. It looks like it cost twice that much.

    You can tell the difference between what a $40 million and an $80 million movie looks like??


    • It’s rare for a trailer to excite me in and of itself. If it’s REALLY well done, then sure. But otherwise, I usually get excited by critical buzz and word of mouth or the filmmakers involved with the project.

      As for the budget, I feel like I’ve just got a general baseline for how a film should look at a particular price tag. Certainly not an exact science though. :-P


  2. Enjoyed the film, and I don’t usually do this, but I couldn’t shakes the gnawing question why they couldn’t gradually investigate, a foot at a time if necessary, and from underground, by sea, and by air as well as by strolling into the mystery with backpacks and assault rifles. If the drones don’t come back, attach cables to them. Organize a hands across the Shimmer party…

    It bothered me.


    • For the same reason that when John Hurt sees a strange egg-shaped object, slowly opening and then sees something moving around inside, he chooses to lean and place his face directly over this unknown object.

      That is, almost all plots are propelled by someone doing something stupid.


      • It bothered me less in Alien, because it would make sense that a guy who’s basically a space trucker wouldn’t necessarily follow best practices during a first encounter with alien life. And he still took basic precautions (like wearing a suit), and Ripley wanted to enforce a quarantine before they brought him back on the ship.

        The bad choices involved made sense for the characters. They were dumb, but not a gratuitous kind of dumb. Just an ordinary human kind of dumb.

        When supposedly trained experts can deal with a problem without being in a blind rush, dumb mistakes, or even a lack of caution and creative problem solving, become much harder to rationalize. This was an issue with Annihilation that the movie largely side-stepped (IMO) with the touches of magical realism and the intense psychological focus, but it was still noticeable.

        It really stood out in Ridley Scott’s later movies in the “Alien” franchise (Prometheus and Covenant) which were about a bunch of morons going to strange planets and dying as they lived: stupidly.


        • Yeah, I feel like every film should be granted a buy-in or two, but everyone has their limits. If they didn’t enter the Shimmer themselves, there wouldn’t be much of a film. They do establish that there’s an electronic interference, which is why communication devices don’t work. You could reason that a drone wouldn’t work either.

          (I’m with you on “Prometheus,” though – way too many dopey plot turns.)

          Thanks for reading!


        • I agree that the latter pseudo-ALIENs were lacking in scientific credibility, but I could excuse the flaws more easily, if not quite completely, as artistic license for the sake of propelling the stories forward. ANNIHILATION demands the same type of suspension of disbelief, but to an extreme, since the lack of even minimal info about what’s inside the Shimmer is the central problem, people are going off on suicide missions in vain hope of solving it, and, as you point out, our very science-y scientists have apparently had plenty of time – upwards of a year – to come up with alternatives: It’s like LIFEBOAT, except in a swimming pool, not the ocean, so anyone could reach safety with just a little bit of paddling, but no one does.


        • There have been a few essays on how superhero movies are intrinsically right wing in that they necessarily depend on the hero, who is…super, and somehow better than everyone else, where the Strong Man on Horseback is better than the team of equals.

          X-Men treads this line carefully, in that even though Magneto is obviously correct that the mutants are in fact a super race, Professor X prefers that they act with noblesse oblige towards their inferior humans.


          • Not sure if that is necessarily right wing*, but it is exceptionally elitist.

            *The military is often considered right wing, but is very much about the team of normal people getting the job done.


            • Our conceptions of things are often driven by our desires rather than reality.

              The conception of the military is that they are all a bunch of Heroic Individuals single handedly defeating the enemy, when it is a socialized group of ordinary people joining together in coordinated action, none of which is very heroic.

              The idea of the cowboy is the Heroic Individual defending the Heroic Individual Settler, when the cowboy probably worked for a large corporation, and it was the Cavalry who defended the settler who was enjoying his socialized plot of land stolen from the natives.

              I would say it is true though, that the the right more than the left values the hierarchy implicit in heroic action.

              The propaganda of the Communists tried to valorize the worker bee, but it always produced absurdities like the Maoist era song “Oh How I Love To Haul Manure Up The Mountain To The People’s Collective”.

              There just aren’t many heroic action movies to be made about the supply sergeant who makes sure that the Seal Team 6 is provided with meals and water. It is more appealing to imagine a world of Rambo and [cannon fodder guys]

              I rather liked that Vox essay that Saul linked, where he talked about the craving for a heroic narrative of drama and conflict, which the left has a hard time conjuring up.

              I know that personally, a world of beautiful manor houses filled with beautiful objects is more alluring than a world of dull Modernist cubes, but I also remind myself that those manor houses were beautiful exactly because of the vast injustice and hierarchical inequality, where so much capital and labor could be concentrated on one single building, and the rest were hovels.


              • I would say it is true though, that the the right more than the left values the hierarchy implicit in heroic action.

                True, with one correction: Heroic physical action.

                The left values heroic action as well, but it tends toward the less physical, more personal/psychological.

                Think Daredevil. He puts on the mask, and he’s a hero for the right. He puts on the suit and tie, and the left is rooting for him. In the show, he struggles mightily with the conflict inherent in that.


  3. I have to be honest, I love Ex Machina and so I went into this expecting something similarly transcendent, and I was a little disappointed. It was…fine? But it wasn’t spectacular. It kind of felt all over the place tonally, like it couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a horror movie or not. And the climax in particular just felt silly and underwhelming. I dunno, I really wanted to like this movie, but overall it just didn’t work for me.


    • Sorry it didn’t work for you! It’s always frustrating for me when I go into a film from a promising filmmaker, and it disappoints.

      As for the tonal mashup, I really like that about it. I thought it successfully straddled that line between horror and science fiction, in the spirit of films like “Alien” and “The Thing.”


  4. I loved it and can only guess that the marketing around it was terrible because my scifi nerd engineer friends at work had largely not heard of it or not been interested. It has been a very good few years for sci fi movies, starting with Garland’s Ex Machina in 2014.

    It manages to be beautiful and deeply frightening at the same time. Lovecraftian is a great way to describe the type of oppressive discomfort that hangs over you through the whole movie. Daylight scenes are gorgeous and night scenes are Alien-level dark and scary, but the queasy sense of dread is constant through both. It’s smothering, even as you watch people walking through a hyper-beautiful wonderland.

    The score is perfect in that it mostly hangs unobtrusively in the back and provides a feeling of continuity between general uneasiness and spurts of terror, except for a few key moments where it jumps into the foreground to accent a scene with something new. “The Alien” is one of the best uses of synth sound and music I can remember in a movie. It swells up underneath a weirdly upsetting interaction with something completely alien after Garland has spent the whole movie grinding down your defenses and making you surrender to the strangeness of the place. I can listen to that track again and again to bring back the whole experience. Definitely a movie to be watched with good speakers.

    Also, you definitely have to suspend some disbelief with respect to tactics and planning. I think the books handled that stuff a little better by providing some backstory into what a mess the whole investigation was, but if you give into the idea that they’re disoriented and unsure of how far in they are, it’s possible to let it go.


    • The studio really dropped the ball on the marketing. As I understand it, “Annihilation” was receiving really poor test screenings, so I suspect they thought they had a bomb and decided to cut their losses.

      But glad you liked the film, and thanks for reading!


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