Annihilation | Pittsburgh City Paper


Alex Garland’s sci-fi thinky puts man in conflict with nature, and his own nature

Into the shimmer: Natalie Portman
Into the shimmer: Natalie Portman

Annihilation opens in an isolation room. In it, a weary woman is answering questions from moon-suited men. Clearly, she has survived something harrowing — it is noted that others are dead. Through a series of flashbacks (and flashbacks within those), the story comes into focus. Well, the “what” and “where” of it does; the “how” and the “why” remain elusive, and the “who” is also up for debate.

Welcome to Alex Garland’s non-linear, slow-moving sci-fi thinky, which bears some stylistic similarities to his exploration of man and machines, 2014’s Ex Machina. This film, adapted from the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s trilogy, puts man in conflict with nature (and his own nature), with a little help from an otherworldly force.

Three years ago, something struck the coast of the southern U.S. and created a giant shimmery cloud. Military men went in and didn’t come back. Except one. But his biologist wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), notes he came back radically changed. 

But the “shimmer” continues to grow. Now, Lena joins a group of women scientists —Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Cass Sheppard — to enter the no-zone and maybe sort out what’s happening.

Suffice to say, things do not go well in the shimmer. There’s grave concerns of an ecological bent, and the weird happenings (and bizarre time shifts) take a toll on the women. The group splinters into individual battles: This isn’t a rah-rah quest to defeat some monster or invading force, so much as it is an exploration of other strategies to deal with the weirdness, such as surrender and partnership.  

Despite a few scares and moments of brief action, Annihilation unfolds slowly. The mystery gets less knowable the deeper Lena progresses into the shimmer, and that’s clearly the point. It’s heady sci-fi horror, with plenty of analogies to ponder, and some truly gorgeous imagery. If midnight movies still reigned as they did in the 1970s, I could see this joining the late-night philosophers’ circle of 2001, El Topo and Eraserhead