By Daniel Howat
Final Score - 8/10
“A cell never dies. It becomes immortal.”
A mysterious “Shimmer” descends in the middle of a national park, and those sent to discover what it is disappear. Electronics don’t function properly inside the Shimmer. Things don’t appear as they should. None who enter come back. And it’s expanding.
Well, none came back except for one. Biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) finds her soldier husband (Oscar Isaac) back home after he was gone for a year without contact, but he’s not the same. Lena is whisked away and taken to the Shimmer, where she discovers what her husband had been up to on his mission. From the get-go, the film sets a steady, creeping pace that draws you in, slowly building the story. This is the type of film in which the mystery grows as the film goes on. What is this Shimmer? Why is it here? What’s the purpose of the strange things that happen inside?
Lena and four other women are tasked with entering the Shimmer to try to answer some of these questions. Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson), Cass (Tuva Novotny), and Lena embark on this mission knowing they’re not likely to return. Immediately inside the Shimmer, things begin to feel off. There are a few cheap jump scares, but Annihilation creates an eerie atmosphere that naturally builds anticipation and wonder rather than relying on horror tropes. It feels effortless. This world that’s disorienting the characters is gorgeous and constantly interesting. The Shimmer gives the film a purplish-pink glow, there are unnaturally beautiful flower formations, and so much more. It’s enticing, while still filled with a sense of dread.
Though we aren’t given much depth with these characters, they’re all played with such strength and power and nuance. What sort of people would embark on a mission that will end in certain death? Lesser films would build these characters up as heroes risking their lives to save the world. Annihilation is never interested in saving the world. These women are there to find answers. Of course, Portman shines as our lead, exploring this world both with hesitation and determination. She’s stoic and steady, but open and desperate for answers. Rodriguez is the standout here though, giving a brilliant, complex performance that makes you pay attention.
What they find inside the Shimmer is beautiful. Stunning cinematography and amazing production design make up for hit-or-miss visual effects. Though this world is beautiful, it’s often brutal. There are some unrelenting, violent sequences. One creature in particular will surely disturb you well after you leave the film. Still, these moments never feel cheap or cliche. Every moment of horror is earned.
As they go deeper into the Shimmer for answers, they keep coming up with more questions. They find ominous remnants of previous missions. Video recordings from this earlier team show the women what awaits them. The film keeps you confused, questioning what you’re supposed to believe, what you’re supposed to understand. Life, death, and self-destruction are constant themes. A grungy-electronic dissonant score pervades much of the film, aiding this threatening, beautiful world. Many scenes were scored with a plucking acoustic guitar. There seemed to be an odd disconnect between these two types of scores, but I suppose that’s the sort of thing that makes sense within this strange place.
This is writer/director Alex Garland’s second directorial feature after 2014’s Ex Machina. It’s clear he’s interested in films that ask more questions than give answers. There’s a discomfort in that. Viewers should be prepared to let these types of films marinate in the mind. Annihilation is a stunning work, intriguing from beginning to end.