Annihilation is a movie so prepared to alienate audiences that it comes with its own built-in version of a dissatisfied viewer. His name is Lomax, he's played by a gruff, hazmat-suited Benedict Wong, and he appears to work for the secret agency responsible for sending expeditions into Area X, a stretch of swampy wilderness that's been taken over by a mysterious atmospheric phenomenon nicknamed "the Shimmer." In the opening scene of the film, Lomax stands over the lone survivor of the latest expedition, a dazed biologist named Lena (Natalie Portman), and demands answers she doesn't know how to provide — and that the movie doesn't really care to.
He wants to know what happened to the other scientists, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny, who were part of Lena's team. He wants to know what explanation they found for the Shimmer, which has claimed the lives of almost everyone else who ventured into it. He wants to know how Lena survived for the four months she was gone when she only had food to last two weeks.
Lena doesn't remember eating at all when she was in Area X. Maybe she didn't have to. It doesn't seem all that important when compared to the rainbow fungi peppering the trees in Area X, like Seussian tumors, or the attacking alligator with rows of teeth like a shark, or the churning guts revealed in a vivisected stomach, spinning impossibly like a coiled snake trying to escape.
The expedition, unfurling like an acid trip gradually going wrong, makes up the bulk of Annihilation. The result is less welcoming than you might expect, considering it's the hotly anticipated second feature from Ex Machina director Alex Garland, adapted loosely (and with some controversy) from the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer, with a cast full of interesting women and an Oscar winner in the lead role. Lomax is, effectively, Annihilation's on-screen acknowledgement of how frustrating the movie will be to viewers who expect explanations rather than allegory, and who are waiting on its dream logic to firm up into something more orderly.
The film periodically snaps back to that containment room, where Lomax looms over Lena, trying to make sense out of an account that refuses to be made sense of, assigning motivations and arriving at solutions that aren't inadequate so much as beside the point. Lomax may be a character in the movie, but he's also a misguided consumer of the story it tells, impatiently demanding to know why and what it all means. Anyone hoping to find out might realize that's not going to happen around the time one character appears to turn into a plant, but if not, they can always stick around to see another transform into a floating space blob.
Annihilation is some heady nightmare fuel, but its most striking quality may be how little it has in common with the current trends in mainstream science fiction. The film is a throwback to a period when sci-fi was an oddball genre instead of a dominant and increasingly fan-driven one; it heavily references Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, and its surreal ending brings to mind Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 2018, deep into the era of the “cinematic universe” and series like Westworld, whose very structure begs to be diagrammed, Annihilation's hallucinatory haziness feels bracingly out of step with the direction expansive sci-fi has been taking. It plays like a response to the age of fan theories and puzzle box fiction, in which stories are set up to be pieced together, with every element eventually snapping into place. When something as mild as the nonrevelations regarding Rey's parentage in Star Wars: The Last Jedi could turn out to be wildly divisive, the lyrical loose ends and relationship-driven interludes in Annihilation might as well be a raised middle finger.
At the very least, that ambiguity reminds viewers how narrow our relationship with the narratives we watch has become — how prone we are, as a viewing public, to assume our demands will be met. We've been trained to expect neatness, to log every detail in a story as indicative of some wiki-worthy overall mythology, or as some clue to what's next. Annihilation tips its hat to the fact that audiences today are less inclined to have patience for brain-melting metaphors and psychedelia, but it doesn't cater to those more literal tendencies. It even seems, at times, to be actively at odds with them. Garland has noted in interviews that he's not concerned about audiences keeping up with how much of the information in his film has to be inferred, saying that "the key thing would be about strangeness."
There really isn't much room for ambiguity in the multiplexes, and, tellingly, there's not much room for Annihilation in them, either — Paramount, the studio that produced the film, lost faith in the resulting weirdness of the finished project and sold off most of the international rights to Netflix (which has been making itself a home for sci-fi studio discards recently). But the beautifully disturbing visuals of Annihilation are made for the big screen: verdant mutant landscapes and prismatic light, the days seeming to skip right to late afternoon, the sun hanging low in the sky.
Something is extremely off inside Area X, something that seems to radiate from the lighthouse that is the explorers’ ultimate destination, causing their bodies and minds to start fragmenting, making them lose time and lose their way. But as they come across troubling traces of expeditions that have come before, including the one from which Lena's husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), returned sick and changed, the question of what's in the lighthouse starts to seem less pressing than the question of why people keep signing up for a journey there's so little chance of surviving.
The most radical choice of all in Annihilation isn't everything it leaves unsolved, but the way it reveals itself to be a movie more invested in personal impulses than possible extraterrestrial invasions. It wants to examine the kind of people who'd willingly walk into oblivion, to hold them up to the splintering light — people who, as Novotny's character Cass puts it, are by nature a little broken. One of the explorers is solitary and dying, another a recovering addict in search of a replacement high. A third is a soft-spoken embodiment of depression, and the fourth, Cass, is a mother who lost a child.
That last bit of backstory is becoming something perilously close to a genre cliche, also figuring in different ways into the backgrounds of the heroines of Gravity, Arrival, and, more recently, The Cloverfield Paradox. Maternal grief has become a shorthand for filling out a female character and giving her something personal to reckon with. But that's not the case for Cass, who doesn't relinquish the pain from the loss of her child, or process it, or triumph over it. Instead, she describes it as a kind of personal death, something she'll never really get over. She may still be around, but the person she used to be is gone forever.
The person Kane used to be is gone, too, when he returns from his yearlong expedition into Area X acting nothing like the man we glimpse in Lena’s flashbacks. The more we get to see of their marriage, the more that relationship, and not the lighthouse, seems key to the movie. We gradually gain a better understanding of the emotions that drove Lena into Area X, a morass of guilt and love and determination as deep as any anomalous swamp. She's not a character the movie bothers to make you like, but she's the lens through which it considers something bitterly complicated — those inexplicable whims people can have to destroy things dear to them, or to try to destroy themselves. She is, like her fellow travelers, a fractured thing, but unlike them, she needs to come back from the strange beyond.
She does, of course. The opening scene makes it clear that Lena survives, though not what it might have cost her. The real enigma isn't the glimmering, matter-warping nature of Area X, despite how intoxicating it looks on screen — it's the darkest part of the human heart, that desire to break ourselves open, even if it's just a little bit, in rebellion against our animal instincts toward self-preservation. As Lena recounts what happened to her, she repeats sentiments that are blockbuster taboos — that she doesn't know, that she can't explain the Shimmer or what it was after — statements that are bound to exasperate the Lomaxes in the audiences as much as the Lomax in the movie. But to give too much emphasis to those unanswered questions is to treat Annihilation like it's a different sort of movie, one that's trying to gratify rather than unsettle. There's something to be gained from letting the mystery be, surrendering to the experience of the film, and to the reminder that in real life, there's so much we never get to know. ●