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ANNIHILATION is a Scary, Cosmic Trip (Review)

ANNIHILATION is a Scary, Cosmic Trip (Review)

There’s always been a level of existential dread in the work of Alex Garland. The idea that humanity as we know it is resting on a the edge of a cliff and any bit of change or new information could push it inexorably into a freefall toward oblivion. His screenplay for Danny Boyle’s Sunshine had his characters stare into the sun and see something dark and unfeeling looking back; his directorial debut Ex Machina questioned what it actually means to be human in the face of technology. Now his film Annihilation brings humanity to the brink once again, in a film full of more wonder and cosmic dread than ever before.

Nominally based on Jeff VanderMeer‘s book of the same name, part of his Southern Reach trilogy, Garland’s film takes a group of five scientists and doctors into an area affected by some unknown something—the Shimmer they call it—in an effort to understand and stop it before it spreads across the entire world. Inside the Shimmer, many of the laws of nature don’t apply, and the lines between different types of life are blurred so much that they’re almost in focus again. To say it’s troubling is an understatement.

Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist and former soldier whose soldier husband (Oscar Isaac) disappeared in the Shimmer a year ago. Information comes to light that has her join the next expedition, led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and featuring a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), and a geologist (Tuva Novotny). They’ve determined the source of the outbreak is at a lighthouse on the coast, but to get there they’ll have to traverse miles of swampy marshland and encounter whatever might be  there. As far as they know, the previous expeditions were either killed by something, or killed each other.

While the movie follows a basic quest narrative—the team has to get literally from point A to point B—its path is just a framework to hang some deep character drama. Portman goes on a much darker and fateful journey than simply going in to a contaminated patch of wetlands. She’s searching for redemption, coping with loss, and needs answers to some of the greatest questions of all. And as a biologist, she wants to understand how and why species aren’t behaving the way they should. What is the Shimmer? What is it doing? What does it want? Does it want anything? Are these questions even necessary? The answers, we learn, are incredibly simple and incredibly complex in equal measure.

Garland does a great job of creating his sense of creeping dread throughout the run time, while peppering in immediate, physical threats. Each new discovery is more troubling than the last, and once we reach the last 20 minutes, we can’t help but be blown away, by both the revelations and the way they’re depicted. Garland also does a subtle thing by having the music early on in the movie be basic folky guitar, even employing the Crosby, Stills, and Nash hit “Helplessly Hoping,” but the further we get to the cosmic truth, the more of Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s pulsing, unearthly synth comes in. As Portman and company traverse closer and closer to the truth, the music is telling us it’s not grounded in what we know.

By all accounts, Annihilation bears very little resemblance to the VanderMeer novel, but it shares some DNA with Lovecraft, specifically “The Colour out of Space,” which might be the Rosetta Stone for Garland’s work in general. It’s the kind of terror that can’t be quantified by monsters or jump scares, but by the breakdown of humanity through a revelation from outside our perception. The movie is slow, but it’s always building, peppering in “WTF?!” moments along the way until we get to a final act that justifies the movie being made in the first place. This is legitimately unlike anything we’ve seen before in science fiction films, except maybe the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This is smart, troubling science fiction, with a cast of supremely talented actresses, and Portman showing us a character full of turmoil bubbling under the surface. If Ex Machina was man’s attempt to create perfect synthetic life, Annihilation is about a woman’s attempt to comprehend imperfect organic life in all forms, staring into the void and having it stare back. I think it’s a movie that deserves several viewings, and your brain’s whole attention.

4 out of 5 mind-altering burritos

Images: Paramount

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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