“Annihilation” dives into Area X, a mysterious coastal landscape encompassed by an iridescent slime barrier. Inside, DNA mutates and radio signals disappear.
To see “Annihilation” is to be a part of a similarly unnerving experience. Director Alex Garland composes a world of visual glitches and jump scares so unnerving that the world outside the theater can’t be trusted — even the sun breaking through the clouds might be a wormhole.
Based on a 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation” follows a group of women tasked with investigating Area X, also called “the Shimmer.” Previous investigations have failed, coming back with reports of soldiers dying or losing their minds. Only one soldier, Kane (Oscar Isaac), has returned, but his wife Lena notices something is off. The government branch leading the expeditions kidnaps the couple and, in an attempt to understand what happened to her husband, Lena joins the next exploration of the Shimmer.
It is difficult to deny the girl gang undertones of the film. Each woman on the expedition is tagged by a job title — a biologist, a psychologist, a physicist, etc. When the crew stands in front of Area X’s holographic curtain for the first time, these scientists momentarily reflect the all-female Ghostbusters, jumpsuits and unwieldy backpacks included.
Natalie Portman leads as Lena, whose world has been ripped apart by her husband’s disappearance and mysterious return. Portman’s portrayal of Lena relies on her constant questioning of the warped world around her. Gina Rodriguez moves far away from the innocent Jane of “Jane the Virgin”; her depiction of Anya, a recovering addict and paramedic, is gritty and unnerving. Along with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny, these actresses provide a critical look at the collaboration of women and the chaos of isolation.
The weight of “Annihilation” is carried seemingly effortlessly by its ensemble. If you hated Bryce Dallas Howard’s high heeled sprints in the “Jurassic World” reboot, you’ll love the grim reality of these women’s outfits. Their hair is pulled back, and their boots are flat.
Once inside the Shimmer, the group encounters a myriad of natural beings and mutations, like crocodiles with shark teeth and monstrous bears. These encounters are utterly terrifying and gruesome — anyone put off by gore should take caution before buying a ticket. But the film’s best visual illusions are much more understated. The light refracting through the psychedelic dome of the Shimmer looks like nothing more than a lens flare, as if the film itself has mutated.
Just as tragedy is deepened by lighter moments of comedy, the mutated horrors of the Shimmer are punctuated by “Planet Earth”-like montages of the region. Pastel lichens wrap around trees, deer have spindly, flower-covered tree branch antlers and swamps are filled with lush greenery and transparent fish.
But, with a soundtrack filled with twangy acoustic guitars, “Annihilation” feels rooted in something far more personal, rather than a sci-fi nature documentary. The real horror begins when the Shimmer infiltrates Lena and her crew’s bodies. The feeling of a glitch in your own system is undeniably creepy and inescapable.
The film speaks to themes far more universal — self-destruction, conservation and scientific ethics are subtly interwoven through the film. "Annihilation" makes its focus clear: the malevolent forces are alien, but its horrors are clearly human.