Annihilation is one of the eeriest and most spellbinding mainstream films in years

Alex Garland’s meditative supernatural sci-fi is beautifully acted by an all-star cast.

Natalie Portman in Annihilation

Walking out of the screening for Annihilation, the crowd seemed bewildered and baffled. Based on the divisive speculative fiction series by Jeff VanderMeer, the film depicts a group of female scientists entering a mysterious zone referred to as “the Shimmer,” a growing area along the American East Coast, where many enter and none return. By all accounts a substantial departure from the novel, the film that writer-director Alex Garland has crafted is one of the eeriest and most spellbinding mainstream films in years, blending a solemn mythology of self-destruction with a spiritual landscape of shifting reality.

Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist whose military husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), went off on a mission a year ago. With no clear answers as to his fate, she presumes he’s dead until one day he reappears like a shadow while she’s home. Sitting in their warmly lit kitchen nook, their hands meet tentatively. Garland frames the shot so their fingers explore each other, distorted in the light and reflections of a glass of water. The image is startling and poetic. Her husband breaks away to take a sip of water as she interrogates him on where he’s been. Like a mantra, he repeats “I don’t know,” until their reunion is abruptly interrupted.

Soon Lena finds herself on an isolated base, learning about what may have happened to her husband. Psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) explains that three years ago the Shimmer appeared and has been steadily growing ever since. In a room overlooking the shimmering wall, a cascading and translucent curtain resembling a pulsating gas spill, the pair discuss the scientific possibilities of the phenomena. Dr. Ventress explains that they’ve sent multiple military envoys inside and only Kane has ever re-emerged. Dr. Ventress has assembled a group of female scientists to go in next. Curious to find out what may have happened to her husband, Lena decides to join them.

As with many films that exist beyond the confines of normal expectations, there is a strong impulse in writing about Annihilation to string up a series of comparisons that only vaguely illuminate the tone and atmosphere of the film. Most clearly indebted to Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky and his films Stalker and Solaris, the film maintains a dreamy atmosphere throughout, visually and structurally. Told through flashbacks and dreams, the non-linear format of the storytelling lends uncertainty to the proceedings, as time appears to fold over onto itself.

While adopting the kind of meditative tone of Tarkovsky, the film also shares a lot in common with John Carpenter’s The Thing, not least because much of its tension centres on a kind of slasher narrative where characters within the Shimmer are picked off one at a time. Annihilation is also shocking in terms of violence and monster-effects. Blending practical effects and sparse CGI, the film has a number of truly nightmarish sequences that left members of the audience gasping and others turning away in fear.

It is an absolute testament to Garland’s writing and directing that the film never appears convoluted as he balances multiple characters, timelines and points of view. The film’s tone, orchestrated as much between two competing musical scores as it is by montage, guides the audience to continually deeper spiritual experiences. Perhaps Annihilation’s greatest asset, though potentially one of the reasons it does seem to alienate some audiences, is the deep core of its introspection. It is a film that indulges in the beauty and horror of speculative fiction, while being even more invested in the question of survival — particularly spiritual survival.

Garland really positions the film’s character trajectories around the issue of self-destruction and rehabilitation, forcing some rather deep moments of self-reflection in an audience that might normally want to escape themselves. Once inside the Shimmer, each character is given ample time to breathe, to air their fears and reach towards enlightenment. With an all-star cast that also includes Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny, who give layered and engaging performances, the film is perfectly cast and beautifully acted. Rodriguez, of Jane the Virgin fame, is a particular stand-out — if in a few years she is not one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, it will be a crime against all that is good and decent.

While my initial impression of Annihilation is that it is entrancing but flawed, to actually try and pick apart what might not work about the film is difficult. The movie is strange, conceptual and unlike most films of the past decade of mainstream cinema. It disrupts expectations, which might be why it seems imperfect, though to parse through what might be done differently, it seems self-evident that Garland hit each beat with a perfect thematic trajectory in mind.

With a sparse marketing campaign and after the monumental box-office failure of Paramount’s previous film, Mother!, it seems as though the strangeness of Annihilation has made them wary of putting too much of a push behind the film. That’s a damn shame because it’s so rare to watch a film that leaves you a little dumbfounded (in a good way). Annihilation has the potential to be a sleeper February critical favourite and it won’t be entirely too surprising if at the end of the year it fights its way onto a number of “best-of” lists. ■

Annihilation opens in theatres on Friday, Feb. 23. Watch the trailer here: