“It’s a bit like The Thing,” a coworker said to me, pitching Alex Garland’s Annihilation, and if you knew him you’d know there’s no greater compliment. It’s a fine comparison for all the isolated paranoia and gooey abominations you’ll witness. It’s also a lot like Stalker and Solaris, a little like Ridley Scott’s Alien, and something like what Scott’s Alien prequels wanted to be. A pinch of 2001 is, naturally, a given. In short, it is solid mystery box sci-fi, where humans saddled with humanity venture into a strange place and face up to the unknown. Here, that place is called “the Shimmer”, which doesn’t quite have the same ring as “the Zone”, but is likewise a mysterious spot on Earth where the rules of time and space—and in this case, genetics—have begun to bend in alarming ways. Almost no one who has gone in has come out, and the area is spreading. So a team of scientists (all women, with Natalie Portman as the haunted locus) head for the center of it, to determine its nature, intent, and weaknesses.
Of course, as with any mystery box, there comes a time to put up or shut up, and on that count, Annihilation actually does pretty well, albeit more for themes than plot. It ends up, intriguingly, as a kind of horror movie where the monster is “life” itself: teeming, cyclical, constantly evolving, and forever outside full scientific understanding. The film turns floral imagery and rainbow lens flares into something genuinely unnerving. It carries itself with a palpable distrust of natural law, and it connects to Garland’s 2015 hit Ex Machina in wondering whether something else might do a better job at being human than us. And like Ex Machina, the worst I can say is that it’s a bag of ideas which hint at more than they articulate, and that beneath its smooth craft and chilly atmosphere, it is more devoutly versed in sci-fi conventions than able or even eager to transcend them. It lacks the emotional richness of Solaris, the philosophical and political resonance of Stalker, and the radical aesthetic shock of Alien. But while those comparisons may sound like a put-down, it’s also a compliment to Garland for being one of the precious few directors in Hollywood today to get away with staging science fiction in such an ambitious vein. The film is itself a genetic hybrid: a Tarkovskian contemplation where occasionally something with nasty teeth pops up for target practice—and it wouldn’t do to say that the film’s identity needs one more than the other. That the studio balked at it—in most of the world, the film went straight to Netflix—is an ill omen. If Garland has a true science fiction masterpiece in him, he’s still working up to it. For now, what a joy it is to find yourself in the middle of a forbidden zone and not be entirely sure where it’s going. And then to have the ending linger.
Annihilation is available wherever you get your TVOD movie fix. Nothing like a close encounter to help you sort out your life.