Science fiction has long been one of the most popular genres in film and literature. It allows us to project questions of personal, social and philosophical depth onto the cold field of science, humanizing these fields and making them more digestible. The modern era is plagued by questions, and the need for science to answer them has never felt so pressing. In classic cinematic fashion, director Alex Garland’s “Annihilation,” based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, provides our generation with its ultimate sci-fi picture, a beautiful head trip that transcends its flaws to become a contemporary landmark.
The film opens on Lena (Natalie Portman), who is an ex-military biologist teaching at Johns Hopkins University. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year since he left for a mission with the U.S. Army. One evening, he returns home and falls mortally ill. The next morning, Lena finds herself in a remote outpost, with machines keeping her husband alive. Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) reveals that Lena’s husband was the sole survivor of an expedition into the Shimmer, an expanding ecosystem that consumes everything around it. No other teams survived. In order to save her husband, Lena joins Ventress and three other volunteers — paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson) and surveyor Cass (Tuva Novotny) — on one final attempt to discover the origin of the Shimmer.
Garland, who began his career as a writer for mid-aughts genre hits like “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine,” has grown in his skills since taking on directing. His debut feature, 2015’s “Ex Machina,” was a chilling, intimate dive into the relationship between humans and technology. “Annihilation” continues Garland’s exploration into contemporary scientific and ethical issues. It is “2001: A Space Odyssey” for an era when our environment tries to kill us, when our personal lives become entwined with larger threats to the physical world. That isn’t the only legendary film Garland draws inspiration from — another notable example is Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker,” a portrait of psychological, ecological and political states of being.
In one sense, Garland is an even better director than writer, though both skills are essential to his voice in the world of science fiction. Unfortunately, his writing sometimes suffers from over-explanation, which certainly true in “Annihilation.” Garland’s characters spew intensely scientific expositions, which isn’t necessary for a general audience to understand the film and detracts from his gorgeous, impressionistic sequences. Perhaps the greatest moment in the picture is the nearly wordless, 20-minute stretch in the third act, which condenses the metaphysical and scientific journey of the entire film into an avant-garde package. The images and sounds could have been ripped from a Stan Brakhage film, a beyond thrilling thing to see in a wide-released studio film. Remnants of a flashback structure hinder the picture’s flow, but it fashions itself into a stunningly ambitious and emotional final moment that raises 10 times as many questions as it answers.
Still, the film’s strongest element is by far its cast. As Cass says early in the film, all of the main characters are “damaged goods” — people haunted by the tragedy of their pasts who take on a suicide mission precisely because they have nothing left to lose. Lena, Ventress and company are looking for answers in a broader mystery represented by the Shimmer itself. Portman is incredible in the lead, as usual, but the tough-minded Rodriguez and nuanced Thompson steal the show as their characters. In the tradition of films like “Alien,” “Annihilation” is hard sci-fi anchored by brilliant women, all complex in their own right, fighting against violent, horrifying forces beyond their control. Though some credit belongs to Garland, the majority belongs to the extraordinary cast. In a way, “Annihilation” is ultimately a film about how women will save our world from oblivion.
As with all lofty and challenging works of art, “Annihilation” poses a threat to the Hollywood status quo. In a controversial move, Paramount Pictures sold the rights to “Annihilation” to Netflix in all foreign territories. Reports stated that the studio was afraid that such an ambiguous, strange film would alienate audiences. But Paramount couldn’t have been more wrong. Garland has crafted a sci-fi spectacle for the ages, one that replaces explosions and cataclysmic disasters with deeply engaging questions about the nature of psychology and the environment. “Annihilation” asks a lot of its audience, but depriving them of such a film should be criminal. If you are in the United States, do your part and see “Annihilation” as it should be seen — on the biggest screen possible, where its sights and sounds can overwhelm your mind and senses.