Writer/Director Alex Garland

“I don’t know.” That’s the answer biologist Lena (a good Natalie Portman) gives to several questions she is asked in a quarantine scene, which we revisit periodically throughout the film told almost entirely in flashback. It’s an apt answer, given how enigmatic her experience has been in ‘the shimmer’, a phenomena created when an meteor-like object slams into a lighthouse somewhere on a sparsely populated Florida shore. The shimmer is growing to massive proportions and threatens to eventually engulf all.

‘I don’t know’ is also how I feel about Annihilation, director Alex Garland’s second film following his impressive debut, ex machina. That film was about an artificial intelligent android who kills its not so benevolent creator to escape into the real world where it goes undetected, passing as (being?) human. Annihilation has some of those same elements, but is much more mysterious about who the alien is, whether it is intelligent, sentient, or more like a virus without consciousness or intent. The film leaves these questions open with hints of evidence that can lead to different conclusions, especially about the ending.

Lena’s time inside the shimmer is shared with four other women, all scientists in different fields, who are the latest of several teams to enter. No one from other teams has returned, except Kane (Oscar Isaac), Lena’s husband, a soldier whom she has thought dead for six months, and who appears at their home without announcement. He can’t answer her questions, and has no sense of who he is and where he has been or for how long. His suddenly violent illness catalyzes Lina’s involvement with the authorities who sent Kane, and puts her on a path to find a way to save him by entering the shimmer.

The majority of the film is spent with the five women moving through the forest and swamps trying to learn about the nature of the shimmer as they deal with the effects it’s having on the environment and each other, both physical and psychological. Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist, heads the team, which includes Anya (Gina Rodriguez) an EMT, Cass (Tuva Novotny) a geologist and Josie (Tessa Thompson) a physicist, each with their own backstory marking them as damaged people. Although this mirrors the convention of a squad whose members slowly get picked off as the story progresses, it’s a nice twist to have the team be all women without the testosterone heavy behaviors we’ve seen so many times in other films, even though they do walk around with weapons and use them.

No matter what the finale means, the journey is an engrossing and tightly told story in a mix of horror and thriller genres, the complexity of intellectual science fiction, and is at times incredibly visually stunning. Some of the effects heavy images could be framed as wall art. The creepiness and tension underlying the film is well reinforced with a soundscape and score – sound design by Ben Barker and music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury – all crescendoing at the climactic scene.

I appreciate how the film challenges me to think about the questions it poses, even though it’s hard to grasp what all of those are, even while it’s sustaining tension and drama. With his two films, Mr. Garland seems to be interested in exploring the idea of what life is and how it can be so different to how it’s traditionally defined. Both end with the ‘alien’ on the loose and a sense of anticipation and worry about what that will mean, for them and the world. Both films are hard to get out of my head. Must See.

Relatable Reviews

  • Manohla Dargis in the NY Times gave me more to consider. “Mr. Garland has a talent for unnerving you with quietly dissonant notes and an occasional grotesque flourish. … He’s a genre guy, and while he enjoys unleashing blunt horror-film scares, he’s especially good at creating a sense of intimate menace, the kind that can brusquely change vibes and temperatures, and just as quickly turn characters into antagonists.”
  • Tasha Robinson in The Verge reflects some of my notions. “It’s not about flashy, colorful forms of self-destruction, but about the subconscious urge to take control of the slow march to the grave by making choices that move it along faster. In spite of the few films it mirrors and refracts, Annihilation feels nearly unique in that regard. Its thrills are mostly reflective and analytical. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as viewers are prepared to open their minds and engage their brains. For a genre that’s supposed to be about carefully considering the possibilities of the future, science fiction too often feels just as slick and mindless a genre as any other. Annihilation fights that trend, and makes its audiences walk away with a lot to think about.”
  • Priscilla Page in has a deeply appreciated analysis referencing Jung. “Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a film about memory, perception, transformation, mutation, the inexorable relationship between creation and destruction. It’s about self-destruction as something cosmological, alchemical, psychological, biological. It’s natural, and it’s devastating.”


Had a great conversation about the theories, takeaways, and philosophies in Annihilation in this Overthoughts podcast.