Masterfully mind-bending, Annihilation will draw you back in again and again, even when you might not understand exactly what happened.
Great horror movies tend to leave me with very specific phobias after watching them. For instance, with Us, it was cartwheeling and scissors. With Hereditary, it was tongue clicking. And with Annihilation, I now have a strong fear of rainbows and mandelbulbs.
Directed by Alex Garland and starring so many MCU actors that I cannot believe it wasn’t intentional, Annihilation follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a biology professor and army veteran whose husband (Oscar Isaac) suddenly reappears from a year-long secret mission. It turns out he was investigating the Shimmer: an unknown area surrounded by an alien soap bubble. While no expeditions so far have come back or yielded any significant results, Lena, along with a new team, decides to go in and try to understand just what happened to her husband in there.
I would normally say, go watch the film to fully understand the story. But in this case, it’s rather counterintuitive because Annihilation is a film you’ll understand even less after you watch it. In fact, perhaps the movie knows this, because it opens with Natalie Portman’s character in an interrogation room looking completely shell-shocked and confounded, which is an accurate representation of what the audience would be like after watching the film.
Yet I don’t find that a negative. Confusing movies or movies that take a while to unpack can certainly be daunting. I realize that it can be frustrating when you don’t figure out all the answers the first time around. Sometimes it’s as if the director had no idea of what they were doing either, and are just hoping people find some secret symbolism or message in the most mundane detail, like how 90% of classic literature classes go. I don’t care what the left doorknob in the dining room door of the mansion stands for in Wuthering Heights, I care if there’s a Sparknotes page that I can leech off of for my English report.
Despite that, however, I don’t see that as a bad thing as long as the film makes you want to come back until you figure it out. With all those classic literature books, I might feel more compelled to find out what they mean if what I read is interesting enough to reread it. If it gives you that drive to keep rewatching, keep exploring, then you are naturally bound to come to a conclusion. What you’re seeing has to be compelling even when you don’t fully understand what you’re seeing.
Which is where Annihilation succeeds, thanks to one factor: the film is about an expedition. It sets up the bizarre mystery right at the beginning: there is an isolated, unfathomable region and we don’t know what is inside. The characters want to find out what’s inside, and naturally, so do we. Therefore, the movie already has our full attention, and can immerse us into every discovery the team makes inside the wall of oil spills. That sense of immersion invites us to come back even after the movie is over.
It doesn’t hurt that the film constantly gives you something visually interesting for further immersion. I am not sure how much was practical and how much was CG, but the film blends effects together incredibly well. There are a few shots, such as a landscape of crystal trees, that look a bit off, but I am going to assume that’s because some of the effects budget went into the copious amounts of LSD the designers were on when they made some of the imagery here.
And that imagery creates an atmosphere of horror that seeps into your skin. The common phrase “you fear what you don’t understand” is taken to the maximum here. The trailers may have been misleading as you could end up taking it as a monster flick, but it doesn’t need monsters. The world, the Shimmer itself is the true source of fear. Every new thing the team comes across serves to remind them and the audience that they are trying to understand something they couldn’t and perhaps shouldn’t understand. It really hits that cosmic horror vibe, that you’re just an ant crawling around on something far, far bigger than you and doesn’t even notice you, but you are affected by every action it makes.
The thing is, it makes reviewing this movie very difficult. I love this movie. I think Annihilation is a masterful sci-fi horror film that Alex Garland’s twistedly brilliant mind has come up with. But going into just why I love the film without spoiling things leaves me with very few things I can actually explain, other than the most basic praises. Performances are all good, though leaving Oscar Isaac in a coma for most of the runtime is a criminal underuse, and the soundtrack is incredibly atmospheric and unnerves you from inside. But anything further will require me to go into full essay mode, which would only work for those that have already seen the film.
It also makes recommending this movie difficult as well. While I would love for more creative, mind-melting projects like these to come out, I also fully realize this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. As I said, the movie leaves you with not everything explicitly understood, and it might not be enjoyable to some because of that. Some people want clear explanations, and I respect that. I would say there is also room for movies that are nebulous and make you think, but some might find that not a little pretentious.
But even with all that, the initial experience, despite not knowing everything, is so intriguing and creative that I still have to recommend it. As I said, that organic curiosity is strong enough to at least ensure you stay in your seat. At worst, you’ll lose 115 minutes of your time, but let’s face it, you probably weren’t going to use it to rid the world of Covid or something. At best, you’ll find yourself draw in, unable to free yourself from Alex Garland’s delicious dosage of what the f**k.
Annihilation is now available to watch on digital and on demand.