Film Review: ‘Annihilation’ is a Visual and Psychological Feast

Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Annihilation from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.

Sometimes you walk out of a movie theater feeling overwhelmed with joy over the experience you’ve just had. Other times, it might be an annoyance or even anger at what you’ve just sat through for two hours.

And, then there is a film like “Annihilation,” which is so bizarre and mind-bending that you aren’t sure which one to feel. Perhaps both. Or neither.

Director Alex Garland follows up his Academy Award-winning debut, “Ex Machina,” with another sci-fi tale. This time, it is adapted from the novel by James VanderMeer.

The story follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and Army veteran teaching at a university. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), disappeared a year ago during a special ops mission, but she hasn’t let herself move on. And when he suddenly reappears outside her bedroom door, unable to tell her where he’s been or how he got back, they launch into a fast-forwarded journey that involves black SUVs, quarantine, and a mysterious government facility known as Area X. No one can explain what happened to Kane, except that he went into an expanding area of alien origin referred to as The Shimmer. Its name is descriptive of the iridescent curtain that acts as a boundary.

Lena is a scientist. A problem-solver. And when she finds herself helplessly sitting by while her husband clings—unconsciously—to life, she decides to join an expedition into The Shimmer. The team consists of a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny), and a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez). Their mission takes them through evacuated lands to the source of The Shimmer.

This film elicits great performances from all of its ladies. Natalie Portman, who won her first Oscar for the psychological mind-trip “Black Swan,” brings an entirely new layer to that performance. This time around, she knows she isn’t going crazy, and she accepts the things she sees, even though she doesn’t understand them. There is a scientific explanation, after all, and she will find it.

The other ladies serve mostly as supporting characters. But Garland, who not only directed but also wrote the screenplay, gives each of them their story. They each have motivations. They each have agency. Instead of falling into the common trap of turning most of the supporting players into inconsequential pawns, Garland gives us reasons to care about each of them, and to cheer them through The Shimmer.

Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr. Ventress quietly accepts the strange presence, motivated by a desire to learn more about it. Tuva Novotny’s Sheppard provides a window into surviving through grief. Tessa Thompson’s Radek lends beauty and dignity to the tortured experience of living with depression. And in Thorensen, Gina Rodriguez is the non-scientist. The one to ask all of our WTF questions.

What’s surprising is that the men in “Annihilation” are the inconsequential pawns. And it’s so subtle, you might not even notice.

Besides solid performances, what really sets “Annihilation” apart are the glorious visuals. When “Ex Machina” won the Oscar for Visual Effects, it was a stunning victory. The film beat “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and the most intense bear attack scene ever created. Somehow, Garland seems to have taken that Oscar win as a challenge to up the ante. The visual effects here are even more impressive, and also more vital to the story. The Shimmer is a strange place full of beautiful and horrible things. And it works. No effect is cheaply done. The colors are rich and vibrant. Movement is seamless. And though it is sometimes overwhelming, it never feels overdone.

This is not a perfect film, of course. There are a few hiccups along the way.

The finale is drawn out a bit too long. As the story races toward a conclusion, the pace falters a bit when it reaches a confusing sort-of-not-quite answer. This involves a sort-of-not-quite fight sequence that is visually appealing. But the level of confusion in the moment makes the sequence drag on far too long and become frustrating. Which only makes it even more frustrating when the film takes a turn into cliché territory.

Another main issue has to do with character motivation and tired archetypes. While the story is mostly linear—we follow this expedition into The Shimmer—it is intercut with flashbacks to Lena and Kane’s relationship before he left on his last mission. And it jumps into the present as Lena recounts her experience to a room full of confused researchers led by Benedict Wong.

Lena makes an easily overlooked comment about signing up for the mission because she was the only one in the group who had reason to come back. The implication being that single, childless women are somehow expendable. This is something that comes up a lot in films. (“Please don’t kill me! I have kids!”) Each of the women on the team had specific reasons for signing up. And each had reasons to return. The actresses and the script did a beautiful job of providing rounded, fully formed characters, and Lena’s summation of her compatriots dashes that. At one point, she refers to it as a “suicide mission,” prompting correction from Dr. Ventress, who explains the important difference between suicidal and self-destructive. But even then Lena doesn’t seem to really understand her fellow travelers. And Garland doesn’t take time to explore it much either.

A few have begun the comparisons to Aronofsky’s “mother!” and have predicted disappointed audiences. Because similar to that film, there really isn’t a way to prepare for what you will see here. But unlike “mother!” this story is pretty straightforward. The debate will not be focused on “What did it all mean?” but rather on “What was the point?”

Overall, “Annihilation” is an experience. A few bumps along the way are fine in a film that is this visually bountiful. Embrace it, enjoy it, and soak it all in.

“Annihilation” is distributed by Paramount and opens in theaters nationwide today.

GRADE: (★★★½)