(originally published Feb 28, 2017)
SPOILER WARNING: Mild plot spoilers follow, but fewer spoilers than any of the trailers, which I don't recommend watching.
Annihilation is smart, cerebral, and affective science fiction that takes a toll on your psyche while keeping you entertained and invested.
Anchored by a layered turn from the always-great Natalie Portman, Annihilation takes us on a journey through what they call The Shimmer, what I would spoiler-free describe as an ever-growing zone of abnormality that looks like a perpetually flowing prismatic oil slick. Nobody knows what it is or what’s inside, and every team that’s ventured into it has vanished.
It’s a great set-up for what could have gone a number of ways if given to the wrong director. Lucky for us, it was helmed by Alex Garland, who gave us 2014's terrific Ex Machina. Annihilation is handled with the same deft direction and clarity of vision, but is elevated by its bold imagination. Chilling moments of sci-fi terror are sprinkled atop the pure fascination and wonder that pervades the film.
The concept is killer, and thankfully it has a great script to go along with it that's full of little details and doesn't treat the audience like idiots (except for one scene that teeters on the brink of over-explaining something, but it's okay). The story is framed around an interview that takes place after the journey. I normally don't like this kind of narrative device, as it robs the viewer of certain reveals, namely, we already know that subject makes it through the treacherous adventure that we're watching. Thankfully, in this film's case, "will they make it" is less interesting than "how did they make it," and Garland plays with this narrative device to the film's advantage.
The story is brought to life with sumptuous production design and lush cinematography that was unlike anything I've ever seen on screen. The majority of the film takes place inside The Shimmer, where everything inside glows in a subtly psychedelic way, feeling like it exists on the periphery of your senses. It's a very VFX-heavy movie in general, but the effects look great, are consistent, and give the film a wholly unique look and sense of identity.
It's always refreshing to leave the cinema thinking "I have never seen anything like that before," and in this case I meant it in more than one way. By the time I was on the other side of this story, my mind was thoroughly blown. Like all good sci-fi, this film and its themes will linger in your mind for days after you finish it. It's a brain-pleasing feast of a film that deserves to be seen, especially if you're hungry for meaty sci-fi.