10/10 Annihilation is a soaring triumph of science-fiction adventure. It is jaw-clenching, deliriously beautiful and overwhelmingly weird.
Ex-military cellular biology teacher Lena (Natalie Portman) is in mourning for her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who has been away for a full year on a classified mission and presumed dead. He suddenly reappears in their home, but something is clearly wrong, and the couple is apprehended by a security force. Lena learns that her husband was inside the Shimmer, an alien field situated in Blackwater National Park in the Florida Panhandle. The field has been expanding for three years and will soon envelop major cities. Kane, now barely clinging to life, is the only thing that has ever entered it and come back. Desperate to save her husband, Lena joins an expedition to find the field’s source.
As the group goes deeper into the Shimmer, they also go deeper into themselves. The all-women expedition, which is the first to be comprised of scientists instead of soldiers, is on a suicide mission, and each of them has a reason they don’t mind dying. The film is framed as Lena’s debriefing after she returns to the Southern Reach.
Annihilation is maybe one of the most intense films ever made from start to completely unforgettable finish, both a deeply satisfying escapist thriller and a disturbing character study. Where so much of modern escapist cinema makes fantastic technology and apocalyptic power feel like nothing out of the ordinary — Marvel! — Annihilation makes every scene compelling and dreadful, whether its a simple slasher scene with a mutated bear or something as mundane as watching cells divide through a microscope.
Writer/director Alex Garland draws absolutely as much as he can out of every scene. The film is shockingly well-shot and detail-oriented, to the point that a shot of Lena taking a sip of water brings you to the edge of your seat. Annihilation is beautiful to the point that it would be an incredible experience to watch with earplugs in, but the sound is so dominant that it would be equally astonishing through a blindfold — especially in the film’s electrifying climax.
Like Garland’s previous feature, Ex Machina, Annihilation is saturated with thematic imagery — in this case, the image of a cell. Its menagerie of themes are introduced softly and dance on the back of viewers’ minds, on cancer and other cell mutations, infidelity, suicide, duality and replication. There’s no treastice or statement on what it all means, just repetition and association with a creeping Lovecraftian horror as viewers, like Lena and her team, come up with more questions than answers.
This lack of clarity is probably the reason the film didn’t do well in a test screening last year, which lead Paramount to an in-studio conflict that was resolved with an awful compromise. Reportedly, David Ellison wanted the masterful ending re-shot, but Scott Rudin, who held final cut, wouldn’t budge. What eventually ended up happening was Paramount selling the international distribution rights to Netflix and only putting Annihilation into theaters in North America and China.
While the first-of-its-kind release pattern is fascinating and deserves emotionally detached study, it’s a travesty for this film. This film was designed to be seen in one uninterrupted sitting on the big screen in true surround sound. It will surely still be compelling on Netflix, but that’s just not the end it deserves to come to.
Annihilation is a stunning sensory experience and it is an exclusive privilege to see it in theaters. Go see it as many times as you can before it cycles out — which it will quickly.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal.Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.