Lena (Natalie Portman), a cellular biology professor, has given up hope that her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), will ever return. She’s close to believing that he’s dead — he’s a Special Forces soldier, last seen departing for a classified mission a year ago. Then, one night, he reappears mysteriously, disoriented, with a fragmented memory — and dying. Other Special Forces soldiers intervene and ferry the two of them to a top-secret facility on the edge of what’s been termed the Shimmer: a strange force field of sorts that has expanded outward from where a meteor crashed into a lighthouse three years prior. It has only grown since then and shown no sign of stopping; soon, it will threaten populated areas. No one who enters the Shimmer has ever returned — until Kane, who remembers nothing of what happened there. Whatever it was, it took root in his cells and is now killing him. Knowing that if there is a cure for his condition, it will be found in the Shimmer, Lena volunteers her expertise as a biologist for the first team of scientists set to enter, bound for the lighthouse that has become the source of the phenomenon.
Hoo boy, future generations are going to look down on us for sleeping on this one.
Annihilation is the sort of movie that’s built to stick around, even if only on the edge of the cultural subconscious — great, mysterious, elusive, offering a foundation concrete enough for theorizing and plenty of empty space to theorize about. I’m not sure if it’s insane or brilliant or both; it would require multiple viewings, I think, but it invites them eagerly. It feels like something people will talk about — only a few at first, and then a few more, and then a few more, and maybe, one day, a committed following. I should know — I said the same thing about Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, so clearly I’m absolutely never wrong when I predict future cult status for a box office bomb.
Seriously, whether that following ever actually coalesces, I will absolutely die on this hill: It more than deserves it. Like everyone else stranded in the boonies, I had to wait quite some time to get Annihilation in front of me, and so few movies live up to the expectations that build in the interim. Annihilation did. And it did in a way that happens so rarely — when a film seems to evolve in real time, when it’s boldly philosophical, risky in both concept an execution, when it’s so alchemic and unwieldy that it escapes you, even as you escape into it, when it somehow both invites and discourages deep analysis. You’re distantly aware that it moved you, and you want to relay it to others, but in the wake of one viewing, all you’re really able to do is bluntly assert its value. In a lot of ways, I’m not prepared to talk about Annihilation yet, but that’s part of why it’s lived in my mind for the better part of two days now — because I don’t completely have it in my grasp yet, but I’m already excited to probe its mysteries a second time, even knowing that some of its questions will never be answered concretely. It’s a film that’s meant to be viewed, absorbed, and discussed — hard science fiction of the variety that isn’t often made anymore, and perhaps never was.
Annihilation somehow manages to be both new and staunchly traditional. It’s a collage of influences, science fiction throughout cinematic history woven together until something altogether new emerges from the threads. Annihilation has shades of Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Solaris, Stalker (perhaps especially Stalker), and I’m sure numerous others that don’t come to mind right this second — shades of all these films, but it’s indebted to none of them. And somehow, it seems to take only the things I love about each of these movies, and very, very little of what I don’t. It maintains the most perfect balance of questions and answers, story and atmosphere, concrete plotting and open-ended abstraction, that I can recall seeing — not only recently, but maybe ever. There’s a there to explore — and an overpowering, but tantalizing, sense that you’ll never find all of it.
The craftsmanship is impeccable. I wish I had been able to see Annihilation on the big screen. It’s extremely well-directed, but it’s the design behind it all that stands out as the true MVP. Its sound and production design teams already seem fated to be among 2019’s most inexcusable awards snubs. The Shimmer looks the way it ought to, and feels the way the movie feels — grotesque but lovely, light and colors mixed with darkness and seriously gnarly gore effects, mesmerizing in the near-constant contradiction of its world, trippy without self-consciousness, the sense that it’s being weird to be weird. Everything makes sense, even as the film draws you into its twisted Wonderland. Visually, the movie somehow feels like a living thing, a singular organism that you see from the cellular level all the way to infinity. I don’t know how to describe it. The sound design is similar, and the score plays right into it. I’m not sure I even want to call it a score; you couldn’t listen to Annihilation’s music independently. It’s discordant noise, structureless and improvisational, usually a stuttering electronic beat signaling that something has gone terribly wrong. Annihilation isn’t strictly a horror movie, but it’s much more frightening than many films that fit more snugly into the genre. It positions horrors next to beauty, each enhancing the other as much as corrupting it. It fits the movie’s broadly cast thematic net, life and death and the cycles thereof, the human propensity for self-destruction, the meaning of all this, the possibility of something larger than ourselves, the terror of existing as specks in a massive universe, the arrogance of those specks positioning themselves at its center — Annihilation is about everything and nothing, as closed off to the idea that this means anything as it is searching for meaning in absolutely everything. This, too, I find difficult to describe — the feeling this movie leaves you with, horrified, cynical, but hopeful, answerless but believing in the value of the question, trapped in a cycle but aware that this means the darkness will pass even as the light does.
Annihilation contains multitudes. I think that’s what I love most about it, that it’s a multifaceted experience that uses every strength of film as an art form to its furthest extent, that it’s capable of encompassing so much, that it scares and thrills and enlightens, that it’s such fertile ground for further thought, leaving you with threads that spiral outward into other threads and then still more threads until you’ve somehow touched everything. It’s a rich emotional and intellectual journey; half the time, you don’t know how to feel about it, but in its own, inimitable way, it turns that into a strength. It goes without saying that it confirms Alex Garland as the realest deal in science fiction right now. It’s the sort of movie I can’t recommend enough even while knowing that a substantial number of people who watch it will absolutely hate it. I have no idea the effect repeat viewings will have on it, but I’m excited to find out. As of right now, I believe Annihilation is brilliant — and even if it isn’t, there’s a seed of something truly special here. I hope it isn’t forgotten.