Alex Garland made a stunning directorial debut in 2015 with the innovative sci-fi psycho-thriller Ex Machina.
He’s back with the chillingly titled Annihilation, which proves to be a deep dive into a very different sci-fi realm. It opens with Lena (a haggard Natalie Portman) being interrogated by a man in a biohazard suit. We soon learn that Lena is a biologist sequestered in Area X, a top-secret government zone created in response to a menacing and inexplicable extra-terrestrial “event.” Somewhere in a remote national park there is an expanding circle of contamination defined by a pulsing, iridescent wall of energy known as the Shimmer.
Several military parties have pushed through the Shimmer on recon missions; but only one, very damaged soldier has ever returned. There has been speculation about whether external forces killed them or they went mad and slaughtered each other.
It then transpires that Lena is the only surviving member of a five-woman team of scientists who also broached the Shimmer, in hopes that a search for knowledge would be more helpful than soldiers stalking a supposed enemy.
The film is shown mostly in flashbacks, revealing provocative and sometimes horrifying details of what happened to the female scientists. We also get details of Lena’s back-story (including the fact that the surviving soldier was her long-thought-to-be-dead husband).
The tone of the expedition footage toggles between an almost plodding realism and a slowly intensifying strangeness: from beautiful but mutant plants that defy all the rules of genetics to a terrifying attack by a freakishly over-sized alligator, we are pulled ever deeper into a disquieting mystery.
By the time the women discover a grove of shrubs that resemble human topiary, they seem captive to a mind-bending world that is part magic, part menace. But is it real, or a mass hallucination? And then, towards the end, Annihilation gets deeply and gloriously weird as it takes the audience on a trip that raises questions it never answers.
Although this isn’t exactly a feminist take on sci-fi, the female-centric cast creates a fresh dynamic. And even the standard tropes of paranoia about government, contact with alien life, and the limits of human intelligence manage to resonate. This may not appeal to classic “space opera” fans, but Annihilation is a brainy piece of genre filmmaking that is grounded in questions about what it means to be human.
Stars Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac
Directed by Alex Garland
Jennifer Lawrence stars as a Russian intelligence agent who is compelled to become a trained seductress and assassin in order to save her mother. With Jeremy Irons. This looks good!