Alex Garland’s enigmatic ‘Annihilation’ tracks five women as they travel into a bizarre region

April 13, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 13, 2018

Writer-director Alex Garland’s new movie, Annihilation, is a suspenseful science-fiction feature about a team of women investigating a mysterious extraterrestrial phenomenon that’s taken hold of a remote coastal region.

Natalie Portman (Black SwanJackie and the Star Wars prequel trilogy) stars as a Johns Hopkins biology professor whose husband disappeared a year ago after departing on a classified military mission. When a tight-lipped Kane (Oscar Isaac of the new Star Wars trilogy and the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis) suddenly returns, Lena has far more questions than her spouse has answers — questions that only multiply when Kane suffers a strange physical meltdown.

While traveling to the hospital, Kane’s ambulance is intercepted by heavily armed government agents driving black SUVs. One of them sedates Lena, who awakens as a detainee in a government facility in a never-identified part of the United States.

The facility’s staff is studying an unearthly phenomenon called “the shimmer,” a translucent field that has been expanding ever since a meteor struck a lighthouse at a state park three years ago. The government has sent people and probes into the shimmer, but until Kane’s quixotic return, no message, machine or person had ever emerged from it.

The shimmer’s existence has been concealed from the public thanks to a cover story involving a toxic chemical spill, but eventually it will grow to encompass cities, states — perhaps even the world. The government is desperate to determine what’s inside the shimmer and how to reverse or at least limit its spread. However, Kane is now comatose and can shed no light.

When Lena learns that a team is heading into the shimmer, she requests and is given permission to join them. Icy psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) leads the group, which also includes physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson, one of the leads in Creed), anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez, star of the TV show Jane the Virgin).

Strange things begin happening as soon as the women enter the shimmer. Seemingly right after they step inside, they wake up at a camp they’ve pitched in the forest without any memory of the intervening period, although an inventory shows that they’ve consumed a few days’ worth of rations. The team encounters freakishly mutated flora and fauna before they stumble across a temporary outpost established by Kane’s group.

The women perceive their bodies undergoing troubling and inexplicable changes, which exacts a heavy toll on their sanity. They come to realize that even if they reach the lighthouse at the center of the shimmer, they may be in no condition to discover anything about the phenomenon, let alone report it to the outside world.

The movie, which alternates the main narrative with twin framing stories, also incorporates other types of drama. In one of these threads, a biohazard-suited interlocutor named Lomax (Benedict Wong) questions Lena following her emergence from the shimmer; in the other, Lena remembers her home life with Kane and her relationship with a colleague named Daniel (David Gyasi). It gradually becomes clear that each of the members of Ventress’s team has suffered some kind of trauma. Moreover, it seems that at least two of the women are concealing secrets that could jeopardize the rest of the group.

Garland adapted Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation for the screen in his second directorial outing, following the robot drama Ex Machina. Garland wrote that movie; he’s also written the zombie movie 28 Days Later…, the science fiction film Sunshine and the comic book adaptation Dredd.

Like those works, Annihilation draws from a variety of influences, featuring classic science fiction, horror and suspense tropes. All of it, however, enhances the foreboding mood. The changes that the people, animals and plants undergo inside the zone are increasingly eerie. Annihilation has just a few scenes of violence (one of which is quite graphic), but each one packs a big punch.

The movie climaxes with an unsettling wordless sequence that’s complemented by a brief, ambiguous denouement. The ending is open to any number of interpretations, which VanderMeer’s book apparently won’t help the viewer to decipher. (Garland’s adaptation reportedly has limited fidelity to its source material.) As the credits rolled, I questioned just what kind of movie I’d seen, and whether it had concluded on a hopeful, ambivalent or ominous note.

Annihilation isn’t for all viewers, but it is an intriguing feature that should provoke some interesting discussions.

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