yThe original 1979 Alien had its immortal tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” In Annihilation, it’s the Shimmer. (Though someone will definitely hear you if you scream in a crowded theater, it turns out.) Alex Garland’s astonishing new movie owes at least some small debt to that sci-fi classic, but it also holds echoes of another more recent touchstone: 2016’s spooky-cerebral alien-invasion drama Arrival. Much like it, Annihilation begins in cool-toned blues and grays, toggling between the present-day classroom where biology professor Lena (Natalie Portman) numbly instructs her college students in the basics of cell division, and intimate flashbacks to the bed she shared with her military-officer husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). Called out on a mission he can’t tell her anything about, Kane promptly loses contact and falls off the map; missing, presumed dead. Twelve months later he returns without warning or explanation, but what should be a blissful reunion immediately goes wrong in almost every way.
And so, like the scientist and former soldier she is, Lena demands an explanation. Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is surprisingly forthcoming; there’s some kind of force field that’s taken over a nearby swampland, a phenomenon no one can explain — though they call it the Shimmer, its iridescent borders like the slick gloss of a soap bubble or the rainbow sheen on gasoline. The circumference is spreading fast, and no one who’s entered has ever come out again, excluding Kane. But there is another group heading in soon if she cares to join, an all-female crew of linguists and physicists and anthropologists: brash Anya (Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez), gentle Cass (Swedish actress Tuva Novotny), brainy Josie (Thor‘s Tessa Thompson) and the terse, enigmatic Dr. Ventress. (Why this group of brilliant, beautiful women at the peaks of their professional careers would subject themselves to what sounds like a suicide mission isn’t immediately made clear, though it will be.)
At first, life inside the bird-twittery, rainforest-dense bubble seems benign, or at most merely curious; a stray mutation on a flowering vine, a crocodile with rows of teeth stacked like a shark’s, the way a compass’s true north spins helplessly. But every step inland brings something exponentially darker and stranger and more unnerving. If there’s an explanation for the things they’re seeing and feeling, it’s not remotely earthbound.
As a novelist and screenwriter, Alex Garland has been a sort of genre gypsy, wandering from the heart-of-darkness bohemia of The Beach and clever zombie nihilism of 28 Days Later to the drab dystopian romance Never Let Me Go. But his 2015 directing debut, Ex Machina, felt like a giant leap forward: a meditation on morality and technology that mined something far trickier and more thoughtful than anything he’d done before.
Annihilation feels the same, though on a much bigger and more sensational scale. The dialogue can be stilted and sometimes hokey, in that particularly sci-fi way; characters aren’t so much developed as sketched for utility. But the overall effect is extraordinary: a lavish, magnificently unnerving visual feast threaded through with well-earned jump scares and real metaphysical force. It’s the kind of film that leaves you dazzled, shellshocked — and not entirely sure whether your own moviegoing DNA hasn’t been altered a little in the process. A-