‘Annihilation’ Review: Thought-Provoking Sci-Fi Shocks


Movie Rating:


Following up his acclaimed directorial debut ‘Ex Machina’, Alex Garland (who’d previously written ’28 Days Later’, ‘Sunshine’, ‘Dredd’ and others) got a chance to make a rare big-budget sci-fi film built as much on unsettling ideas as on CGI monsters.

Sadly, the realities of contemporary filmmaking being what they are, Paramount got wet feat about rolling it out after the studio’s twin filmmaker-focused box office failures of ‘mother!’ and ‘Downsizing’ last year. That’s a shame because ‘Annihilation’ is easily the best of the pack, a film beautiful enough to demand big screen exhibition and troubling enough to deliver hours of discomforting thought long after the hallucinatory end credits. Although it’s not as tightly-focused or delivered as ‘Ex Machina’, it’s not supposed to be. This is one of those brain-busting sci-fi head trips designed to keep you coming back to understand a little more each viewing. Sadly, most folks will wind up seeing it soon on Netflix rather than getting their hair blown back in a theater as intended.

The film begins with a mystery, which certainly doesn’t mean that it ends with answers. Natalie Portman plays Lena, a former soldier who now teaches biology at a university. Her husband (Oscar Isaac) is still in an elite military unit and has been missing for months. She’s depressed and distraught and things aren’t going to get better, even when her husband mysteriously returns with few memories of whom he is or where he’s been.

Lena is soon approached by a mysterious government agent named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who explains that her husband went missing on a mission entering a strange shimmering zone on the map that suddenly appeared and has perplexed scientists and government officials ever since. No one who enters returns (other than the mysterious Isaac) and the zone seems to be growing. Ventress asks Lena to join her on an all-female expedition into the zone. (Since all men seem to have mysteriously disappeared, they hope that a gender swap might make a difference.) Tagging along are a few other scientist/soldiers played by Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny. Once they enter this mysterious new world, time seems to melt away, memory is no longer trustworthy, and all the creatures they encounter appear to have either mutated or evolved.

That’s a hell of a setup for a sci-fi mindfuck and Garland is just getting started. Working from a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Garland is unapologetically ambitious with this bizarre and existential odyssey. The pace is slow and hypnotic. Logic is loose from the start and dissipates further from there. Themes are teased and prodded with increasing complexity. It’s a challenging film, no doubt about it. But it’s not without sensationalistic entertainment. While Garland might specialize in brainy cinematic sci-fi, he’s also an entertainer. In as much as ‘Annihilation’ is inspired by the intellectual genre twists of Andrei Tarkovsky (specifically ‘Stalker’ and ‘Solaris’), it’s also layered with the thoughtful B-movie thrills of John Carpenter (specifically ‘The Thing’). There are monsters in here and plenty of them – big scares, gag-worthy gore, subtle creep-outs, and even a little action too. It’s all in service of something higher-minded than a simply thriller. Garland provokes and prods without ever giving away so much that viewers can’t impose their own readings.

Performances are strong but deliberately muted. The film seems to take place in a universe without emotion, and that actually suits the dehumanizing themes. The visuals are as stunning as anything in Garland’s startlingly gorgeous ‘Ex Machina’, even pushed further through budget and conceptual ambition here.

At its core, ‘Annihilation’ is a film about the fear of evolution from the perspective of the species that are inevitably left behind. It’s both a crushing apocalyptic tale of humanity’s end and the beautiful start of something new. Garland’s returning design team that includes everyone from cinematographer Rob Hardy to production designer Mark Digby and concept artist/graphic novel icon Jock craft a new world as foreboding as it is beautiful. Nothing looks like conventional monsters or mutations. It’s all new and as glorious to behold as it is unsettling. The movie finds beauty in the grotesque and the grotesque in beauty until the two become indistinguishable. The film is both viscerally terrifying and disturbingly complex once you peel back all the onion layers. Genre sleaze meets art house pretentions, etc.

If ‘Ex Machina’ proved just timely enough in its analysis of age-old A.I. parables to find a fairly wide audience, ‘Annihilation’ will divide viewers. Some will watch in dumbstuck awe while others are bored lifeless. Some will consider it too shocking to be worthy of intellectual nourishment and others will find it too dull for excitement. All those opinions are valid and invalid. Alex Garland has crafted the sort of challenging big-budget and star-driven genre movie that so many claim to want, but it’s so genuinely brain-busting that many will check out and dismiss it rather than doing the work to finish thought process that the film starts.

Fair enough. Movies like ‘Annihilation’ aren’t for everybody. They’re for a small group of film and sci-fi nerds to obsess over endlessly. In that regard, it makes sense that Paramount wouldn’t want to invest too much into the wide release of a film destined to frustrate the audiences it courts. It’s just a shame that those who love this particular strain of hard sci-fi won’t get the chance to have their eyeholes tickled and their brains blown out in a movie theater. We need more of that.


  1. Scott

    Original sci-fi from a talented novelist, screenwriter, and director. Count me in! I will be there tomorrow night.

    Prefer this stuff over the endless, brainless Marvell dreck any day of the week!

  2. aWaRLoCK

    My local theater, AMC Theaters, here in Kansas, has been showing trailers for Annihilation for quite some time. The movie trailers and now the reviews all indicate this could be a very good movie. So, I totally planned on seeing this movie this weekend and now checking the upcoming showtimes I am discovering it is not even showing here locally this weekend. So, the next nearest and much larger AMC Theater is 90 miles away and I would drive that to see this. So, I check that AMC Theater . . . nope, not showing there either. Disappointing and irritating.

    Now I am hoping Netflix will show Annihilation like they did with The Cloverfield Paradox. I hear Netflix is streaming Annihilation in many countries this weekend. Yea, I know the USA is not one of them. But this sucks when the nearest showing is a minimum 6 hr. round trip away. And, no, I am not driving 6 hrs.

      • Paramount is dumping the movie due to internal studio politics. Same thing happened to The Cloverfield Paradox. The studio’s new CEO is washing his hands of any movies greenlit by former CEO Brad Grey, who was ousted last year (and then died shortly afterwards).

        2017 was a disastrous year for Paramount. Baywatch, Ghost in the Shell, and Monster Trucks were all huge flops, and even the last Transformers significantly underperformed.

        This sort of thing happens routinely in Hollywood whenever a studio undergoes a regime change. The new management wants nothing to do with projects instigated by the prior management.

    • Clark

      “I hear Netflix is streaming Annihilation in many countries this weekend.”
      Here in Brazil, Netflix will stream the movie on March 12th. I am counting the days!

  3. Scott K

    Saw an advance screening last night. Absolutely loved it. I was definitely in the “dumbstruck awe” category. I’ve never heard an audience collectively take a breath after a particularly intense scene involving one of the creatures the team encounters.

  4. Bolo

    I find Garland’s writing tends to start off with an intriguing idea but then descend into hysterics that leave me very unsatisfied, if not outright frustrated. He seems to have a fan base, especially among critics. But he misses far more than he hits with me. So I’m pretty dubious when another one of his films gets heaped with praise.

    • Chaz Dumbaugh

      Well this is based off an established Novel so I’m guessing he’s more “reigned” in for this one? Dont really know but I’m not one that shares your opinion of his writing anyways 🙂

      • Bolo

        I found ‘Never Let Me Go’ didn’t suffer from the problems typical of the third acts in his original stuff. I haven’t seen it since it came out, but off the top of my head I’d say it’s the best thing he’s touched.

        So, maybe this one will also finish stronger as a result of having somebody else know where the story should go.

          • Bolo

            I know everybody on the internet loved it, but it didn’t do much for me.

            But unlike all the other movies that I’ve seen that were written by Garland, it was lowbrow right from the start. There was never any pretense at being more thoughtful. It was just a simple shoot-’em-up action cop movie. It’s the type of movie I typically like, but I found it frequently dragged and Karl Urban’s performance felt very forced to me. I know the Stallone movie is widely hated, and I don’t consider it a good film, but Stallone did feel more natural as this simplistic blue collar enforcer type of guy. So I’d say my problems with ‘Dredd’ were more the director and actor’s fault.

  5. Chaz Dumbaugh

    Luckily my Cinemark got this half an hour from me, no other local theater picked it up though and I’m really hoping to go check this out, I’m currently reading the book and its good so far, sucks I’m a slow reader because I probably wont get this done before I see the movie 🙂

    • Barsoom Bob

      The movie differs from the book. My advice would be to stop reading, go see the movie, then go back and finish the book.
      I think you will enjoy both more. Saw it and it is very good.

  6. T.J. Kats

    Threads like this are always interesting when it comes to personal blindnesses. I live in a suburb of Indianapolis and have it showing at 6 theaters within 10 miles (closest is 5 minutes away) so it’s always jarring when I see people saying a movie is an hour or more away.

  7. Jimmy McNulty

    Saw this over the weekend, loved it. I award this movie a 9.5/10: almost perfect. The visuals were just mind-blowingly awesome, and I am pretty sure that for the entire climax of the film (I can only guess it lasted around 15 minutes) my jaw was agape. The film’s stream of sensory information contained so much data (both visual and audio), it reminded me of an acid trip. There were some scenes so horrifying and vivid, that I would honestly be afraid to watch them whilst on acid (and I quite enjoy that stuff)! The intensity just kept building, linearly from the beginning to the end; and that climax did not disappoint in any fashion.

    I also have a feeling that many people in the movie theater didn’t enjoy it as much as I did, if at all. I don’t have any real data to prove that point, it was just one of those movies which felt like it was made specifically for people with the same kind of mind that I have… a niche movie, if you will. Therefore, I have only been telling my sci-fi fanatic friends to check it out; the normies might not appreciate what is going on.

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