The best movies contain secrets. We’ve been told for much of our lives that in order to connect with a story we need a clear narrative to latch onto. Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” sets out to challenge this notion with a science fiction epic that works just as much on an emotional level as it does on a cerebral one.
The film follows Lena, a biologist who’s in the process of grieving for her dead husband. Or so she thinks. Seemingly KIA, her husband returns. Or so she thinks. They should be happy. Then he starts coughing up blood. This leads her to a secret institute that’s investigating “The Shimmer” a strange phenomenon that has overtaken much of a Florida swamp. So, on a mission to figure out what happened to her husband, Lena joins a group of scientists to venture towards the source of The Shimmer.
It might sound like I’ve spoiled much of the plot. I haven’t. It might sound like you know where this is going. Trust me, you don’t. “Annihilation” has the trappings of a “Hearts of Darkness”-style story, but transcends the tropes of that “genre” every step of the way. The plot unfolds in an unconventional manner, slowly spooling out tidbits of information before cracking open the story’s core, revealing a flabbergasting phantasmagoria that leaves us with far more questions than answers. It’s one of the most ambitious science fiction narratives I’ve seen in years: even more so than “Arrival,” “Blade Runner 2049,” “Interstellar,” or even the director’s own “Ex Machina.”
At one point, the film references the elliptical structure of “Solaris” and the bizarre world building of “Stalker.” The Tarkovsky influence is palpable at times. Like the Russian director, Garland is unafraid of letting plot elements go by unexplained. He throws linearity out the window, melding the past, present, and future into a temporal soup that immensely complicates a seemingly straightforward framing device. It’s shocking that, in today’s blockbuster-saturated era, a film that willingly pulls from Russian arthouse directors from the seventies can be made on such an impressive scale.
As the film progresses, it starts to turn into one of the most terrifying horror films I’ve seen in a long while. The area within “The Shimmer” contains all sorts of menacing mutated animals, many of which are a horrifying sight to behold. The standout is this mutated bear that has a roar so blood-curdling it made many of my fellow theatergoers audibly gasp. I thought that big monsters didn’t scare me anymore. When I looked at Garland’s abomination for the first time, I realized I was wrong.
However, the artist “Annihilation” recalls the most is H.P. Lovecraft. His works are so popular and influential that “Lovecraftian” has become a common adjective. However, for some reason, many people think that Lovecraftian just refers to horror films with disturbing monsters. However, the genius of Lovecraft is that he’s able to make us scared of the monsters that we cannot see, taking our fear of the unknown to its logical conclusion. It’s tough for a visual medium to replicate this same feeling. “Annihilation” somehow accomplishes this feat through its refusal to spell things out. In this, it reminded me of “2001: A Space Odyssey” a film that, in some segments, frightened me on a very base, intuitive level. Garland knows that ghosts and demons only really affect us so much. He’s looking to shake us at our very core. So, in “Annihilation,” he makes the very concept of our existence the true monster.
What makes a science fiction film stand the test of time? Sure, you’ll have your fair share of crowd-pleasers like “Star Wars” or “Terminator.” But some of the best works of in the genre ask questions without necessarily providing an answer. They implicitly trust the audience to form their own conclusions, knowing that a deeply personal response to a work of art will always be more effective than a spoon-fed message. This is why “Annihilation” will be known as a future sci-fi classic. Viewers can revisit it time and time again, dissecting every second of it in order to get to the heart of its mystery. This is one of the most fascinating science fiction films I’ve seen in my life. It will take hold of many movie fans’ imaginations long after many other science fiction films have been forgotten.