People in general love clever science fiction. Think the intricate concepts and twisty plots of things like Inception, Black Mirror, and writer-director Alex Garland’s own Ex Machina. By marrying complex scientific speculation with the requisite suspense of modern thrillers, these films and television shows are capable of casting a net over more viewers.
But when sci-fi decides to be less overtly clever and more contemplative and philosophical, the audience tends not to take the bait. Think Blade Runner 2049, the initial release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Garland’s new movie and adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, Annihilation. The film, which sees a group of female military scientists investigating an abnormal and dangerous natural phenomenon, was seen as too risky for Paramount to distribute on their own—leading to Netflix taking over international distribution. Thankfully, no matter which screen viewers see Annihilation on, the movie’s strengths elevate it above simple pretension. This is haunting, indelible sci-fi, any way you look at it.
However, as deeply rooted as Annihilation is in real biological and psychological ideas, one thing must be made just as clear: this is also a horror movie, through and through. Garland takes the fundamental structure of horror—an unfamiliar force threatens the characters’ sense of normality—and infuses it with sheer existential anxiety. By filling his film with an equal amount of beautiful and horrific images, he blurs the boundaries between what is and what isn’t natural. Some things Garland hides from the camera, some things he refuses to look away from, and this tension leaves a profoundly distressing effect.
Garland also understands that half the battle when it comes to horror filmmaking is intelligent use of sound. Annihilation is host to everything from the snap of twigs in the darkness to the most terrifying sounds to ever come from a bear. But at no other time does the movie manage to be more unsettling than during its climax: when the musical score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow really kicks in. The music is bizarre, a mesh of vague notes and ambient noises so independent of each other that the score itself sounds like it’s sentient.
If that doesn’t drown you in the atmosphere Garland conjures up, the performances of the cast should help get the job done. There are strong, lively turns here by Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson, but Annihilation really belongs to its more subdued actors. Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar Isaac all use their characters’ deep-seated despair to help make the world seem much less colorful than it actually is. As the film reaches its conclusion, their performances ask the audience to consider: have these people truly changed, or are they still stuck in the same cycle of self-destruction?
All this is not to say that Annihilation isn’t any less of a sci-fi movie. It may appear to have a straightforward point A-to-B plot, but it manages to charge every scene with difficult questions. The main ideas that come up here are about evolution and mutation—how things grow through self-destruction, and how human beings seem to have an innate tendency to seek, well, annihilation. The film smartly allows these questions to breathe and simmer by regularly cutting back and forth through time, which only heightens the suspense and messes with the concept of memory addressed in the movie.
Their being damaged in their own ways is enough because of how the world they occupy is so dynamic and downright strange—somewhere between a natural paradise and an overgrown wasteland.
Some may take issue with how most of Annihilation’s characters don’t receive distinct arcs, but this isn’t the kind of story that really requires full character histories. Their being damaged in their own ways is enough because of how the world they occupy is so dynamic and downright strange—somewhere between a natural paradise and an overgrown wasteland. This duality of nature is captured perhaps most appropriately in how the film’s cinematography always captures rainbows naturally occurring amid the foliage. These rainbows aren’t pretty, though; they’re greasy, like gasoline in water.
With that said, Annihilation isn’t completely convincing when it comes to its visual effects. The movie relies more and more on noticeable CGI as it goes on—a significant step down from a practically constructed alligator that kicks off the film’s descent into horror. Annihilation also makes another puzzling move with an unnecessary framing device that involves an interrogation between Portman’s character and a non-character dialogue machine played by Benedict Wong. In these aspects, the film attempts to complicate things that don’t need complication. Even for something like Annihilation, to be as clear and direct as possible is key.
Still, Annihilation is more rewarding than most sci-fi fare out there today, and it’s much more enjoyable than the Paramount-Netflix distribution deal might have you think. Though still a challenging movie that’s primarily for a niche audience, one need not be a hardcore speculative fiction geek to connect with its themes. And one need not completely understand it to feel utterly disturbed when the credits roll.
Annihilation is streaming on Netflix.