Screenwriter Alex Garland broke into movies in 2002 with his screenplay for 28 Days Later. He followed that with Sunshine (2007) and Dredd (2012), but even more impressive was his 2014 directorial debut, which he also wrote, Ex Machina. The science fiction mystery earned Garland an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, a win for Best Achievement in Visual Effects and proved he was just as talented in the director’s chair as he was behind the keyboard. Now he’s back as the director and writer (based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel) of Annihilation.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biology professor whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year after being sent on a covert military operation. When he suddenly shows up at home, Lena can tell things aren’t quite right. After Kane becomes terribly sick and is whisked off to a secure installation, Lena finds out that he had been sent into Area X, a mysterious piece of land where nature seems to have gone haywire. Before long, she has volunteered to be a part of the next expedition into Area X, hoping to find answers to her husband’s illness and the origin of “The Shimmer” that is steadily spreading across the countryside.
It’s refreshing that Annihilation’s five expedition members are women. Team leader and psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is joined by an EMT (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist (Tessa Thompson) and a surveyor/geologist (Tuva Novotny). It doesn’t take long to discover that Area X contains flora and fauna that have been changed in interesting, bizarre and, in some cases, dangerous ways, and that the women themselves -- and the people from previous expeditions -- are being affected as well. These alterations provide some of the most stunning visual effects to come along in years, along with interesting dialogue and challenging commentary about our appetite for self-destruction.
My only real complaint with Annihilation is that Garland went a bit overboard in one or two scenes with graphic violence. While reinforcing the dangers of Area X and the behaviors its effects can elicit, I worry that the gore will keep some people from enjoying an otherwise exhilarating science fiction movie. Having read blurbs saying things like “tough to follow,” I came out of it thinking that it’s actually a very straightforward story, but now realize it has kept me thinking days afterwards about some of its metaphors. I’ll see it again if only for the incredible visuals, sound and music.