Annihilation, the new Natalie Portman film from director Alex Garland, bills itself as science fiction and fantasy. It’s both of these without question. On top of that, it’s one of the scariest films you will see this year, and should also be classified as a legitimate entry to the horror genre.
This alien invasion movie, loosely based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, explores themes of self-identity and love—as did Garland’s 2014 directorial debut Ex Machina—while mixing in environmental terror involving nightmarish creatures and transforming landscapes. It also features a startlingly brutal take on the ravages of infidelity. Did I mention that it’s freaking scary?
There’s a lot going on in this movie, yet Garland and company balance it all out to make it a stunning piece of brainy entertainment.
In an opening sequence reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing, an object enters Earth’s atmosphere and crashes to the planet. The zone surrounding the crash site becomes something known as the Shimmer, an environmental phenomenon featuring a visually swirling, bendy, translucent barrier that no one can figure out. Numerous expeditions into the Shimmer have resulted in the loss of many people, but one man, Kane (Oscar Isaac), does return a year after his disappearance.
Kane is husband to former Army biologist turned professor Lena (Portman), and he doesn’t seem all there when he sits down at the kitchen table shortly after his mysterious return. He starts convulsing and spitting up blood which prompts a trip to the hospital. Agent types overtake the ambulance, and Lena wakes up in a strange facility next to the Shimmer in the care of Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Before long, Lena is following Ventress into the Shimmer, accompanied by Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (the increasingly amazing Tessa Thompson). Carrying guns and rations, their mission is to reach a lighthouse near the Shimmer’s origin, collect data along the way and, unlike most who have preceded them, return with their observations.
Fat chance. It’s crazy in the Shimmer, and it’s very unkind in so many ways to those who enter. Among its horrors: terrifying videos left behind by former explorers, messed up wildlife including mutated bears and alligators and just a general tendency to make those inside it batshit crazy. There are at least three scenes in this movie that made me want to die rather than watch because they were so damned scary. That’s high praise for a horror movie.
To go with the dread, Garland adds a layer of sci-fi and mixes in some scary elements involving the Lena-Kane marriage. The results are a movie that goes to great lengths to challenge your mind as much as it freaks you out.
Portman is great—isn’t she always?—as a person determined to find out the root cause of her husband’s illness, so much so that she will endure all strains of psychological and physical fuckery. Rodriguez, Novotny and Thompson all have shining moments, while Leigh provides a nice anchor. While he doesn’t have much screen time, Isaac, who also starred in Ex Machina, makes the most of his moments.
While he’s only two movies in as a director, Garland is proving he’s capable of many things. He’s a first-rate auteur in regard to sci-fi, while no slouch on pure drama and capturing stellar performances. And, without a doubt, he possesses some major horror chops. You think I’m exaggerating, but there are moments in this movie that will make even the most diehard horror fans cringe and squirm. I would love to see him direct a ghost story or a pure monster movie.
Annihilation owes a lot to Ridley Scott (Alien), John Carpenter (The Thing) and any incarnation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and, yet, it also feels very original. It’s 2018’s first masterpiece, a rare film that is a shining example of many genres.