“Annihilation” pushes blockbuster filmmaking into the strange unknown

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This article was originally published for the University of Denver newspaper, the DU Clarion. It has been republished here with permission. The original can be found here.

An inherent problem with the filmmaking side of the science-fiction genre today is an industry aversion to embracing what should be standard in this genre: the strange and unexplainable. Studios seem to shudder at the idea of producing (and then marketing) a sci-fi film that forces its audiences to put in any degree of mental work. They frequently opt more for the glitz and explosions that “Star Wars” popularized while forgetting that the oddities of “Star Wars” are what made it iconic in the first place. So when a movie like “Annihilation” comes along, it serves as a refreshing reminder of what could be if the movie industry strove to embrace the weird.

Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s highly acclaimed novel of the same name, “Annihilation” follows a team of female scientists as they venture into what they have named “The Shimmer,” a mysterious ecological zone created by the crash of an meteor into a Florida lighthouse. No team who has gone into The Shimmer has ever returned, that is until the soldier husband (Oscar Isaac, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) of the new team’s biologist Lena (Natalie Portman, “Black Swan”) inexplicably returns after disappearing into the zone a year previously. Spurred by his reappearance and subsequent illness, Lena joins the team in an effort to understand what’s inside this mysterious ecosystem and how it may save her husband.

The Shimmer itself is arguably the main selling point of this film, and screenwriter-director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”) dutifully brings it to fascinating life. To delve into what inhabits this strange land would be to spoil the fun of the film, but rest assured that it’s dazzling in all its beauty and its horror. And the movie itself is a culmination of both these concepts; “Annihilation” is a deftly crafted, gorgeous piece of filmmaking that expertly hides how scary it is until just the right moments. It’s all made possible by the film’s ceaseless drive to be strange. Everything in this film feels wrong, from the detached and flat mood of its cast to the exceedingly disturbing nature of the flora and fauna of the zone they are exploring. This feeling is ultimately what makes the film work, the same way this strange distance heightens the drama of other recent and strange films of note, such as Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Lobster.”

Despite the aloof mode in which they are expected to operate, the performers here are just as marvelous as the wonders they encounter in The Shimmer. It’s a testament to the abilities of the cast (which includes Portman and Isaac as well as the excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh (“The Hateful Eight”), Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”) and Tessa Thompson (“Thor: Ragnarok”) that the conceit works and manages to affect the audience emotionally as well.

Many in the past have scorned scripts penned by Garland, criticizing him for never knowing how to write a proper ending. Though that’s often a gross over-exaggeration, those critics may have a point in this case. The ambiguity of the film’s ending doesn’t quite feel earned when stacked against the dizzying highs of the rest of the film, though it’s certainly not enough of a negative to discredit the power of its craft and narrative. Ultimately, despite asking the audience to take perhaps too big of a leap of faith in its final minutes, “Annihilation” is still one of the best science-fiction films in recent memory. It’s a breathtakingly bold and ambitious trip into the great unknown, and big-budget filmmaking is all the better for it.

Ryan Ninesling