Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” Makes You Sit With the Unknown
Anyone who enjoys science fiction, fantasy or horror films, or who stuck with tv’s “Lost” for six seasons, or who has read more than a couple of Stephen King’s novels, knows that the unknown is often the best part of a narrative. The corresponding fact is that, unfortunately, the revelation of the central mystery is often the worst part. Generally speaking, the lead-up to the monster is great, fun stuff, and the first shot of the monster is sometimes pretty underwhelming.
If that’s true, then director Alex Garland’s latest, “Annihilation”, the follow-up to his whip-smart “Ex Machina”, must be pretty good. Because “Annihilation” isn’t going to tell you nothing about “Area X”, the mysterious, Stalker-like place at the center of the narrative, nor about what the wonders it contains mean. We know that something has landed, or crash, or fell from space, and that the area around it has begun to change in unexpected ways.
Natalie Portman plays Lena, a scientist whose husband (Oscar Isaac) left to explore Area X, disappeared, and subsequently reappeared changed. Now she is joining a team of female scientists, including Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tessa Thompson, lately of “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Westworld”, in an attempt to find out what happened to earlier expeditions. As the journey begins, it is full of some real top-shelf sci-fi visuals, but it feels familiar enough. As it continues, “Annihilation” becomes something more and more like horror, full of chimeric combinations of animals and plants. In fact, in a year of fairly decent horror movies, “Annihilation” can lay claim to one of the year’s scariest scenes, featuring one of its scariest monsters – a skull-faced bear who speaks in the voices of the dead.
But then the last third of “Annihilation” becomes the most daringly opaque conclusion of a science fiction film since, say, “2001: A Space Odyssey”. It is hallucinatory and suggestive, but of what is very, very open to interpretation. You could read the novel by Jeff Vandermeer (in fact, it’s a trilogy of novels) but that won’t be much here. Because while it is very clearly an ambitious film, definitely a film of ideas, but it is kind of anyone’s guess what any of it adds up to. In fact I imagine that the film’s exegesis will continue for years on Youtube via videos with titles are things like “10 Things You Probably Didn’t Notice About Annihilation”.
If you like science fiction with teeth, big ideas and a sense of wonder that borders on horror, then you should probably check it out. And if you figure out what it means, let me know.