The films that London-born Alex Garland has been involved in during his career are certainly full of ideas. In the case of Ex Machina—the novelist-turned-screenwriter’s debut picture as a writer/director—he crammed in too many ideas. And both of the sci-fi thrillers he scripted for director Danny Boyle, 28 Days Later and Sunshine, tended to abandon a lot of those ideas during their third acts, with cerebral notions giving way to slasher-movie thrills. Even Ex Machina devolved into a knife-wielding bloodbath during its final stretch, undercutting the film’s existential questions with visceral thrills.
But Annihilation, Garland’s second foray as a writer/director, relies far more on hard, heady concepts, even as it focuses on a mysterious mission undertaken by five female scientists armed with assault rifles. Sure, those guns occasionally get fired, but the real violence is psychological.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a cellular biologist who teaches at Johns Hopkins University when she’s not holed up in the home she once shared with her husband, Kane (Ex Machina’s Oscar Isaac). Garland quickly establishes that Lena has retreated from life, her hollow eyes occasionally welling up with tears as she struggles to accept the fact that she may never again see her husband who deployed a year ago on his own secretive mission. After six months of inquiring about his whereabouts, she was faced with the reality that her husband might be dead. That is, until he reappears one night.
Or does he? Although he looks the same, he’s a bit different. Robotically sitting at their kitchen table, the once-vibrant Kane is even more of a blank than his shell-shocked wife. He’s oddly unable to answer her most basic questions, his eyes more deadened than hers. Throughout this sequence, Garland and cinematographer Rob Hardy (another holdover from Ex Machina) focus the center of the frame on a glass of water that sits on the table in front of Kane. It refracts the man’s fingers as they pass behind it, distorting them as they slither in and out like eels. This detail is no accident, so try not to forget it when a drop of blood mixes with the water as Kane lifts the glass to take a sip. Soon, he’s convulsing in an ambulance as it’s surrounded by heavily armed government agents who seize the sick man while involuntarily sedating his distraught wife.
Disoriented, Lena awakens inside a research facility overseen by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist who informs her where Kane (who’s struggling to survive, hooked up to ventilators in a quarantined room nearby) has—or perhaps hasn’t—been for the past year. The scientific complex borders the edge of “Area X,” a southern swath of coastal marshland that has been enveloped by “The Shimmer,” a translucent, glistening—and growing—field of energy that resembles a massive soap bubble, filled with swirling colors evoking the oily patches that appear on rain-slicked roads. Kane was part of an expedition to pass through The Shimmer on a mission to reach the epicenter of Area X—
a meteor-striken lighthouse—and he’s the only one to have emerged from it. Until now, that is.
The story, you see, is told in flashback, framed by sequences of Lena as she’s questioned by a hazmat-suited scientist (Doctor Strange’s Benedict Wong) who wants to know what Lena witnessed during her hallucinogenic journey that we see unfold over the course of the film’s nearly 2-hour running time. Led by Dr. Ventress, Lena joins this “suicide mission” that also includes paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez, star of TV’s Jane the Virgin), anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) in the hopes of understanding what happened to her husband, and perhaps discovering the key to saving him.
As sci-fi setups go, this isn’t a bad one, and it’s one that will be familiar to readers of novelist Jeff VanderMeer’s popular Southern Reach Trilogy. However, those same readers might be puzzled by Garland’s extremely loose adaptation of the trilogy’s first book. Rather than hew closely to VanderMeer’s text, Garland relies on the novel more as inspiration, refracting elements of the book through the prism of other sci-fi properties. A terrifying beast that stalks the women owes a large debt to the Alzabo in Gene Wolfe’s The Sword of the Lictor, while the most notable influence is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a 1979 movie (also loosely based on a novel) that follows another small group as they venture into The Zone, a government-controlled region reclaimed by nature that was struck years before by a meteor.
And yet, rather than a remix, Garland’s refraction creates something that feels disquieting and new, as if the DNA of these disparate influences has merged and recombined into something alien and strangely beautiful—thanks in no small part to the contributions of production designer Mark Digby and composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, all veterans of Ex Machina. While viewers conditioned to expect spoon-fed answers to tidy narratives might want to stick with properties like Star Wars (you can get your Oscar Isaac fix there, too), those up for a challenge should prepare to lose themselves in the dreamlike qualities of Annihilation’s aural and visual design, which transforms nightmares into a work of art. ◆
Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, David Gyasi, Benedict Wong, John Schwab and Sonoya Mizuno. Written by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. Directed by Garland. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, Seaport, Someville, South Bay and in the suburbs.