It might be easier to start a review of Annihilation by telling you what the movie isn’t. It isn’t a comedy, that’s for sure. Nor is it a period-accurate costume drama. Beyond that, though? Annihilation could squeeze into just about any label you give it: a horror film; a science-fiction flick that toys with the possibility of extraterrestrial life; a wilderness adventure; a romantically yearning character study; a chilling, painfully suspenseful mystery; a “message” film about either the environment or male toxicity, depending on where you feel like directing your anger; an abstract, allegorical art piece with long stretches of dialogue-free visuals.
The most accurate label is probably just to call it an Alex Garland film. After his stunning 2015 debut as director, Ex Machina, and now the gorgeous, terrifying, and spellbinding Annihilation, we’re starting to get a sense of what that is. These are films that use the tools of genre—science fiction and horror, predominantly—to explore the liminal space between what is human and what isn’t. In Ex Machina, that inquiry was made explicit through Alicia Vikander’s android; in Annihilation, the boundaries are vaguer and scarier. The film starts with the image of cells dividing and reproducing, and it ends with a vivid depiction of how the inexplicable, unquenchable force of life—something all life forms, from amoebas to weeds to humans, have in common—adapts, mutates, and carries on. It could have just as easily been called Creation.
The mechanics of the plot are pretty straightforward: A team of five women—Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Nuvotny, all of them fantastic—enter a mysterious area that’s been taken over by an otherworldly “shimmer,” a coastal jungle and swamp where a rainbow-like, oil-slick tint hovers at the edges of the light, and where the flora and fauna behave strangely. Each member of the team has a special skill; Lena (Portman) is a biologist whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) vanished on a similar mission a year earlier. He’s suddenly reappeared under strange circumstances, but is experiencing massive organ failure. You could argue that Lena volunteers to join the team so she can find out what happened to him in order save him, but it's more complicated than that.
What the women encounter inside the "shimmer" is best experienced by watching the film, but rest assured: Garland’s visual ingenuity is extraordinary. Vines and flowers and fungus sprout from the edges of the frame in pinks, purples, teals, and yellows; that the film wrings so much dread out of these ostensibly cheerful colors is among its many wonders. There are shots so beautiful that you’ll probably gasp in the theater; seconds later, there are things so revolting you’ll feel sick to your stomach. At every step, we’re inside Lena’s head—not just seeing thing with her eyes, but feeling with her feelings, experiencing how this bizarre place reflects the qualities of its visitors in alarming ways.
I’m expecting Annihilation to have its share of detractors. Loudest among them may be faithful fans of Jeff VanderMeer’s book, the first of his Southern Reach trilogy, which Annihilation is based on. Don’t listen to them—VanderMeer’s novel, while creating a terrific atmosphere, was a slim mood piece, more notable for what it didn’t say than what it did. A plot-driven, visually explicit movie requires something more concrete, and Garland fills in the gaps with worthwhile ideas that explore and expand on VanderMeer’s foundation. Garland’s a sympathetic adapter, having begun his career as a novelist (The Beach), and apart from only a couple small quibbles, his contributions only strengthen VanderMeer's story. Just as importantly, Portman makes this strange trip entirely credible.
There may also be some contention about what the movie leaves unclear and what it specifically depicts. For some, it will be too ambiguous, and for others, not ambiguous enough. But the balance worked for me: Annihilation is the best kind of cinematic experience, one that floods the senses without battering them into submission, and one that moves the mind and heart without manipulating them. It’s a staggering thing to witness.