Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller Annihilation—an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel—may have seemed like a good sell for a big studio a few years ago. The first novel in his Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation has been a niche-bookstore favorite for the last few years, with the paperbacks frequenting the bookshelves of both sci-fi fans and otherwise. Unfortunately, one must keep in mind that while genre films are certainly still big-bank items in Hollywood, cerebral arthouse takes on the genre often crash and burn at the box office (Under the Skin, Children of Men, and Blade Runner: 2049 all underperformed despite their critical acclaim).
Seeing that Paramount had already suffered big losses in 2017 when they took risks with larger-budgeted, auteur-directed films like Mother! and Downsizing, the studio decided to cut its losses and forgo giving Annihilation a theatrical release outside of the U.S., bringing it straight to Netflix internationally instead. Having only grossed $11 million out of its $40 million budget during its opening weekend, it’s already looking like Paramount made the right monetary decision with its Netflix deal. It’s a shame because anyone that’s seen the movie will attest that it definitely needs to be viewed on the big screen to be fully appreciated.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology professor with a military background, still grieving the loss of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). After leaving on a top-secret military mission over a year ago, she’s had no contact with him since—until he arrives back home unexpectedly, with no memory of what’s happened to him, right before becoming very sick. Apprehended by a military force, the two are brought to a military compound where it is explained to Lena that her husband had ventured with a research team into a quarantined area called The Shimmer—the site of a recent meteor crash—and that he is the only person to return from the area so far. Despite the evident danger, Lena agrees to join an all-female team of soldiers into The Shimmer in hopes of perhaps finding a cure for her husband’s illness.
Even though Annihilation is a book adaptation, sci-fi fans should still be able to quickly pinpoint a lot of the film’s more cinematic influences. The fantastical biology recalls Avatar, and the storyline seems to pick from several memorable genre films (Alien, Predator, or even something more recent like Gravity or Arrival). The film’s concept—a group of humans enter a quarantined area in hopes of seeking benefits from an ambiguous environmental occurrence—brings to mind the great-grandaddy of arthouse sci-fi itself: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The 1979 Russian film has continued to have a subdued presence on some of the genre’s most idiosyncratic efforts, and while Garland’s approach is considerably less meditative than Tarkovsky’s, he also effortlessly shows his talents as both a stylist and a storyteller.
The film’s script takes a decidedly non-linear approach to the narrative. Lena’s relationship with Kane (and her own grief) is explored through intermittent flashbacks that appear throughout the film. While they’re hardly revelatory, they do help the film’s pace and give it a human quality, which is commendable, as the acting in the film is not its strongest card. Most of the film’s actors, including Natalie Portman, give fairly stoic performances, which makes one wonder if Garland asked his cast to downplay their roles with the idea that the film’s focal point should be on atmosphere instead (even Oscar Isaac, who gave one of his best performances in Garland’s Ex Machina, turns out a rather bland delivery). It’s a stone-faced movie, for sure, but that also aids the film’s tension, which does see results in the film’s final act.
Annihilation is at its most intense and provocative in the last third. Not only does Garland crank the viscera up to the umpteenth degree, but he also valiantly attempts to make the film thematically transgressive. There’s a rather unexpected twist to be had for Lena, and the climax that follows is simply beautiful. In a scene that’s equal parts tense and elusive, Annihilation reaches an artistic echelon for sci-fi that is rarely touched upon, even posing questions on the meaning of humanity. The film’s concluding scene is far more pedestrian, but rest assured, Annihilation features what might go down as one of the most gratifying climaxes of the year.
While imperfect, Annihilation is a quality genre picture that only gets better when reflected upon. It’s upsetting that the film is already looking to become a box-office failure because this is the type of film that people really need to see in theaters. Not only will the film’s meticulous spectacle be lost on the small screen, but its profundities will also be vanquished when viewed in a less intimate setting than a movie theater. Annihilation deserves both your money and your time during its theatrical run, as who knows how many more films like this we’ll be lucky to get.
See also: Review: Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Peter Foy is an avid reader and movie buff, constantly in need to engage his already massive pop-culture lexicon.