"Annihilation" asks big questions, but it's okay if you don't answer them
"Annihilation” begs you to miss the forest for the trees at nearly every turn. It wants you to ask what it all means, why the shimmer is here, what each genetic mutation symbolizes, why each human character interacts with the shimmer in the way he or she does. In some ways, this is what will surely put it on top 10 lists at the end of the year. In others, it will distract from why it should stand the test of time.
So many science fiction films ask what it means to be human it can be rote if not done in an interesting way. Yet Alex Garland, who I felt missed the mark in “Ex Machina,” finds his stride by very loosely adapting Jeff Vandermeer's novel. What happens in “Annihilation” will stick in your brain long after you leave the theater, perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay a film like Garland’s.
Where “Ex Machina” stubbornly eschewed humanity, in my opinion to its detriment, Garland’s follow-up does so in a much more fascinating and empathetic way. Much of that is thanks to the exceptional work done by the leading women whose boots are on the ground in “Area X,” which is where we spend much of the film. Natalie Portman may get lead billing (hey, it’s still Hollywood), but Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tuva Novotny all deserve equal plaudits for their work.
What you get with “Annihilation” is something Ridley Scott hasn’t been able to produce since the first “Alien” dropped into theaters: meaningful sci-fi horror. Ever since he caught lightning in a bottle, Scott has tried to duplicate his initial success (and James Cameron largely captured it again in the follow-up), but in “Annihilation” it seems Garland truly gets what makes the genre-blend work without ever bleeding into excess.
Things get weird, but it all fits into the 2018 sensibilities of the genre. A film about humanity’s obsession with creation, self-destruction and anything with the power to do the same will never go out of style. To say the film is timely now is to ignore that a film like this has always been timely and will always be timely. We have never changed as a species and likely never will, at least instinctually.
If “Blade Runner: 2049” was the sci-fi genre’s visual treat for 2017, “Annihilation” may be its answer for 2018. The he blues and greens are spectacular, creating incredible images that, when mixed with the haunting techno score, are imprinted in your brain. That’s all before discussing the creatures that, while best left unspoiled, will have you waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.
When “The Cloverfield Paradox” made its surprise release on to Netflix in early February, it was admittedly exciting. A high-concept sci-fi film that connected with two admittedly great sci-fi films. It ended up a disappointment as it seemed to make ideas up as it went along, but boy did a lot of people see it. How refreshing it would be if “Annihilation” received similar exposure — a film with a diverse cast, a thoughtful message and brilliant visuals is something that deserves support.
It’s just a movie, of course, and nothing really hinges on the purchase of a ticket. Still, it’s exciting when an artist tries something, does it the right way, with the right people, and it receives the support of an audience. This is one of the good ones.