If Annihilation isn’t the first monster movie to cast Nature with a capital “N” as its monster, then it’s certainly the best.
And like all good monster movies, the monster here is the star. So it is that Annihilation introduces us to Area X, the name given to a swath of swampland wreathed in a mysterious phenomenon known as The Shimmer, which seems to have originated from a comet-struck lighthouse, but is gradually expanding from the undisclosed American coastline. No one is sure whether it is “religious, extraterrestrial,” or otherwise, and its existence is aggravating to those members of the scientific community that like things to make sense, a government psychologist explains. Worse still, no one who goes behind The Shimmer to visit Area X comes back. (Not just a monster movie, Annihilation is a horror film.)
That’s the case until a soldier, Kane, (Oscar Isaac) sent as part of one doomed top secret expedition, returns home more than a year after his departure, long after most everyone but his wife, Lena, a former soldier and biologist played by Natalie Portman, had given him up for dead. It doesn’t take long for Lena, who Portman gives some genuine emotional weight in a movie that mostly just asks its characters to react to the bizarre, to realize something is wrong with Kane. (Annihilation is a love story.)
He’s acting odd, and sure enough, he begins to have a seizure. On the way to the hospital, they’re intercepted by a bunch of government spooks who have also been wondering where the hell Kane went. Soon after, her husband sedated and under watch at a facility just outside of Area X, Lena gets what little explanation there is to be given from a fatalistic psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) about to lead another trip into the swamp that just spit back out one seriously damaged soldier after three years of inscrutable silence. Lena, of course, joins, along with several other women scientists equipped with tools that are rendered defunct past The Shimmer, and guns that aren’t. (Annihilation is a thriller.)
Once in Area X, our monster begins to reveal itself. There’s something profoundly unsettling about this ecosystem. The animals don’t look right. Flowers don’t grow that way. What have we even been doing since we got to this place? Can you remember? What the hell is that? (Annihilation is science fiction.)
Annihilation is adapted by writer-director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) from a novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, booster and prominent practitioner of the aptly named genre of “the New Weird,” a brand of speculative fiction that takes its literary cues from the existential dread of H.P. Lovecraft and the philosophical labyrinths of Jorge Luis Borges. Its pulpier influences would include comic books and horror films. Garland, a novelist himself before he turned to filmmaking, throws a lot of David Cronenberg’s extreme body dysmorphia and a little bit of Kubrick’s cosmic symbolism from 2001: A Space Odyssey into the mix.
That’s all to say that Annihilation is often an unapologetically strange film. Garland, whose resume is loaded with high-minded sci-fi, proves a perfect fit for the material, remaining true to the spirit of the book while using the premise to set off on his own. He’s after simultaneous beauty and terror, and he gets it. Area X is gorgeous but disturbing, washes of verdant green split violently by bright unnatural flora and fauna, the swamp’s natural elements given a post-production sheen — Shimmer, more accurately — that makes even the familiar seem alien. The alien, well, seems even more alien.
Our heroes are well-educated, rational people trying to categorize and classify something that rejects all reason. Reflecting their confusion when faced with this very tangible unknown, our chronology is scattered, whispered conversations about biology and moments of extreme violence appearing at intervals from a fog of unease.
The film also succeeds when it sticks to convention, although it’s possible to wish Garland (or the studio paying for this) had felt comfortable enough to go further off the rails. There are things that go bump — and scream in alarmingly familiar human voices — in the night, and a paranoia that threatens to tear these women apart if the more visible malignant forces don’t get them first. The horror-thriller wrapping isn’t a ruse, and the blood and guts keep Annihilation from floating away when two characters are, say, discussing cell decay. It’s a movie that knows it’s better to show, rather than tell, that as a species we have a tendency to self-destruct.
Audiences may even feel frustrated by the lack of a neat twist or tidily packaged moral message. There’s no “mind blowing” moment of the sort that explains what it all means. It’s a mistake to ascribe any purpose to Area X, Annihilation suggests. Biology does not account for the demands of the human soul. Nature itself doesn’t care about meaning. Nature is acting out a script we had no hand in writing. It’s not beholden to any of the things we use to make sense of the world. If it doesn’t make sense, that’s because it doesn’t have to. Life is supposed to be weird.