ANNIHILATION, based on the novel by the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, is the sophomore directorial effort of Alex Garland (writer/director of the 2014 sci-fi powerhouse EX MACHINA). In the film, a group of scientists (portrayed with equal brilliance by Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny), venture into a mysterious environment known as “The Shimmer”.
The Shimmer is a miles-wide bubble of eldritch energy, inside of which nature does not follow the natural laws that we would expect. Different species of plants grow on the same vines, and animals go through horrific mutations. Of all the expeditions to enter The Shimmer, no one has come out alive.
That is, of course, until now.
Lena (Portman) is shocked when her husband Kane (Oscar Issac), who has been gone ‘on assignment’ for just over a year, suddenly returns home with no recollection of where he’s been and suffering from a strange and terrible illness. Soon Kane, and by extension Lena, is retrieved by the Southern Reach, the group responsible for studying The Shimmer.
Unsure of how else to help her husband, Lena chooses to join the next expedition into the ever-expanding borders of The Shimmer, with the hopes of finding a way to save his life, and possibly all life, by following in his footsteps.
It is all a fairly standard setup: Main Character must enter Scary Environment to Save the One They Love.
But, like everything in this film, the appearance of normality is deceiving.
Part of the film’s visual brilliance relies on its portrayal of The Shimmer. On the outside, it resembles a beautiful wall of ever-shifting light. Once inside, however, it appears bleak, misty, and almost greasy. The effect is akin to an oil slick, and brings to the film a feeling almost like the effects of seasonal depression.
It is never quite light in The Shimmer, only dim and vaguely humid. In this way, a sense of dread begins to build early, as it seems the beautiful Shimmer was a sort of trap for our characters. Outward appearances have deceived, a major theme for the film as a whole.
The magnificent soundtrack by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is also worth commending. Salisbury and Barrow weave a kind of quiet, alien horror into every scene with a soundtrack so subtle, at times, and bombastic, at others, it successfully captures the terrible unpredictability of the environment in which the film takes place.
I will not specifically detail all of the horrors encountered by Lena and her expedition while inside The Shimmer, as to do so would spoil what succeeds at being a fairly unpredictable film. However, the scares vary wildly between the dizzyingly existential (“Were you me? Was I you?”), and the horrifically visceral (A man is gutted alive, revealing his internal organs to be…wrong).
As their minds unravel, our intrepid scientists find that their bodies are beginning to rebel against them. It is in these scenes that the film’s dark horse, an outstanding Gina Rodriguez, excels. She portrays her character with a kind of manic brutality that can only exist without parody in a film such as this.
While Portman is the obvious standout of the film, Rodriguez may very well be its true, unsung hero. This is especially visible in a simultaneously nail-biting and heart-breaking scene, when her character delivers a series of terrified monologues in lighting reminiscent of Kurtz’s reveal in Apocalypse Now. Her face, surrounded on all-sides by oppressive shadow, is a striking image, and her raw dialogue delivery is truly a sight to behold.
But, out of every disturbing element in this film, there is one which peaks far above the others: the expedition’s encounter with “the Bear”. The Bear serves as the prime example of what The Shimmer is capable of doing to living organisms. The result is something that is truly unsettling, a kind of half-alive abomination that lurches through the shadows, its very clear agony eclipsed only by its horrific drive to slaughter our quickly-unraveling protagonists, seemingly for little more than sport.
This film utilizes the Bear far better than any mainstream film has handled a monster in recent memory. Indeed, a bold claim could be made that the Bear’s flagship scene is on par with Ridley Scott’s Alien or John Carpenter’s The Thing. It is heavily shadowed, and totally un-glorified. No loud music, no jarring camera movements, no jump-scares. Just pure, unfiltered terror.
It is only in the final act that ANNIHILATION loses some of its momentum. In a way, it is almost as though the film could not live up to its own standards. The first three-fourths of the film successfully build up such a magnificently brutal sense of terror that, in the end, the final confrontation feels…underwhelming.
Garland would have been better served by showing us less, as he did at other times in the film. While his desire for a visually driven, sci-fi ending is commendable, it takes some steam away from what was, until that point, an incredibly successful study in the limits of human dread.
There are other things I could nitpick, of course (such as the coining of the name “The Shimmer” in general, which sounds more at home in a Dystopian Young Adult Novel than a serious sci-fi/horror film), but all of that would be to take away from what could easily be considered a modern science fiction classic, or a great attempt at creating one. No it is not perfect, far from it perhaps, but ANNIHILATION is unique, and bold in that uniqueness.
ANNIHILATION is a trip through a nightmare that you do not want to miss.