Alex Garland will outlive us all. That much is clear after seeing his second feature, “Annihilation,” based on the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy. Garland operates with an intellect unlike the best minds in cinematic science fiction, crafting deeply human stories that seep into the furthest recesses of the imagination in a seemingly alien manner. The full extent of Garland’s genius is never immediately apparent, but only because he is able to conjure the most tantalizing images that truly resonate once the credits roll, leaving the viewer both perplexed and enlightened. I entered “Annihilation” with a few questions, and I left with more than I’d like to admit.
Three years ago, something crashed into Earth, creating a mysterious environmental phenomenon known as the Shimmer. In response to this event, a government organization known as the Southern Reach began sending military scientist expeditions to survey the bizarre region. Only one soldier, Kane (Oscar Isaac), manages to survive his expedition, returning home to his wife Lena (Natalie Portman), a cellular biologist. Once Lena learns that her husband is dying, she decides to join the next expedition into the Shimmer to find a way to save Kane’s life. Joining expedition leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), a physicist, Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic, and Cass Shepherd (Tuva Novotny), an anthropologist, the group’s ultimate goal is to reach the lighthouse where the Shimmer began to expand.
“Annihilation” is the latest to join a growing list of heady sci-fi cinema, including Garland’s own “Ex Machina,” Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” and “Arrival.” Totally unafraid of its own ambitions, the film travels to incredibly strange places, both physically and thematically. Some viewers will definitely be caught off guard by how far the weirdness of it all goes, but not before being treated to some of the most dazzling imagery the genre has to offer. Light refracts through the plasma-like wall of the Shimmer, allowing cinematographer Rob Hardy to create a mother-load of beautiful exterior shots. A good deal of the production design seems to take inspiration from the popular post-apocalyptic video game, “The Last of Us,” showcasing the innately gorgeous brutality of nature taking over manmade structures, and even man itself. It’s an environmentalist’s wet dream.
However, not everything inside the Shimmer has been made beautiful. As the team of women soon discover, impossible perversions of animal life also exist within. Alligators grow shark teeth, and bears morph into unspeakable shapes. One such scene involving a bear scares just as much as anything in “Alien” or “The Thing.” This moment of terror is the culmination of an uneasy atmosphere generated from the first frame onwards. Garland makes jarring cuts to fragments of strange things, and occasionally shows us curious close-ups of objects and physical gestures, relying on intimacy to accentuate dread and help us form the bigger picture in our minds. An ominous, synthetic score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow only heightens the tension throughout, until everything dives straight into the unreal by the third act.
The ending of “Annihilation” is one for the books, flowing with an abnormality and beauty not too far off from the final minutes of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” While it does answer the great mystery of the Shimmer, it leaves the viewer with far greater puzzles to solve at home, or by simply revisiting the film however many times one might require for analytical closure. It’s the kind of ending that, at the very least, attempts to rewire your brain in terms of thinking about everything you’ve ever previously thought possible. “Annihilation” is the rare breed of genre filmmaking that is able to generate that special seeing-is-believing euphoria that rises out of the viewer for hours upon hours after leaving the theater. Classic status in the coming years is assured.