Whether you will appreciate the sci-fi movie “Annihilation” largely hinges on how you feel about rules.
Writer/director Alex Garland disregards them almost entirely. The genre requires filmmakers to bend reality, but he goes a step further by subverting traditional storytelling techniques, as well.
The film follows biologist and U.S. Army veteran Lena (Natalie Portman) as she investigates a mystical, rainbow-colored entity expanding throughout the South called the Shimmer. Previous teams, one of which included her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), entered the dome-shaped zone only to disappear.
Lena and four others — paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), psychologist Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson) and anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) — hope to avoid the same fate while examining the Shimmer’s simultaneously beautiful and horrifying life-forms.
“Annihilation” is an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel in the loosest sense of the word. Garland shared in an interview with Google that he adapted the book “like a dream” — instead of rereading it, he wrote from memory.
Critics’ responses were mixed. The Star Tribune’s Colin Covert called it “a sophisticated science fiction film that takes us to unbearable heights of fear, tension and bleak paranoia.” But the Atlantic’s Christopher Orr saw it as “a beautiful heap of nonsense.”
Much of “Annihilation” does come across as if written by someone tripping on acid. But this might appeal to fans of David Lynch and other storytellers whose seemingly nonsensical writing reflects the ambiguity faced by the characters. Garland’s writing mimics the scientists’ fear of descending into madness. And while the film includes monstrous obstacles — crocodile-shark hybrids and skull-faced bears, specifically — emotional impulses drive the action.
The cerebral thriller asks viewers to think for themselves. We share the frustration of Benedict Wong’s character, Lomax, who questions Lena about what she experienced in the Shimmer. More often than not, her answer is “I don’t know.” The subsequent flashbacks answer questions about how the dangerous, psychedelic swamp came to be, but enough are left open-ended to encourage discussions afterward.