I don’t often post public reviews unless I’m really quite impressed or disappointed by some consumed thing. Serendipitiously, Annihilation climbs into the former category.
Basically, a 12th team comprised of scientists enter a shimmering, expanding area (the “Shimmer”) from whence the previous 11 teams failed to return to make their way to whatever it is precipitating this mysterious phenomenon located at the lighthouse in the center of it.
First, some criticisms.
Symbolic parallels to overarching events happening in the Shimmer be as it may, there is way too much dull Lena (Natalie Portman) and Kane (Oscar Isaac) troubled marriage backstory that this movie begins rather sluggishly on and flashes back to. I could literally feel my interest immediately wane to apathy whenever the movie cut to one of these scenes. And maybe their relationship sucked that bad and maybe the sensation of abject disinterest was an intended effect but ugh!
No explanation is given for why anyone can’t reach the lighthouse by sea — though, if I had to guess, it’s because monstrous new forms of life have formed in the ocean. Also, if the fastest way out of this exotic area from the lighthouse is (as alluded) to follow the shoreline then why didn’t any of the teams enter that way? Why trailblaze through this nightmare nature reserve at all?
Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells Lena that drones, like human teams, enter the Shimmer but never come back. Why that might be makes sense later when the physicist, Radek (Tessa Thompson), explains that everything including GPS and radio transmissions are being undone similar to light through a prism; however, they find intact digital recordings and functional equipment left by the previous team so I would expect an autonomous robot with sufficient AI could and would be able to gather and return with some data at the very least before going bonkers. If nothing else, to discover the fate of and recover the data from one such doomed drone would’ve been a cool feature.
For being scientists, not one member of the team uses gloves before touching anything and everything that is clearly corrupted with their bare hands in the Shimmer. The air they breathe unfiltered into their lungs is no doubt full of mutating pollen and dust from mutated decay. The water they drink untreated, likewise teeming with microscopic mutant life. No protective gear whatsoever! The man in the hazmat suit interrogating Lena afterwards is better prepared outside the Shimmer than she ever was within it. Even if these scientists are unconcerned with their own health, they are contaminating samples being taken to study.
I can only assume there’s a cut of this movie that fills in the various plot holes and shores up the dead ends (assuming they’re not deliberate features I happened to miss) and, if not, the book likely does.
All that said, the weird world introduced in this movie is absolutely fantastic. Stunning cinematography and uncanny score fuse to create an ambient experience that is at once dreamish and dreadful.
The area the Shimmer has engulfed has been evacuated for years and the abandoned human settlements swiftly overtaken by the mutating wilderness around it, lending it a dystopian feel. All reminiscent of another brilliant movie, Stalker, wherein a guide leads two other men into a forbidden zone where a mysterious event occurred.
However, the more or less inferred existential dread present in Stalker is, at terrifying moments that cannot be unseen (or unheard), explicitly made monstrously manifest in Annihilation. The R rating for the film isn’t for cursing, nudity or violence but rather for the mental and emotional distress inflicted on an unprepared audience by truly deranged turns the film occasionally takes; Hills Have Eyes and Human Centipede kinds of distressing whereby the terrifying suspense and horrific acts of violence are, in and of themselves, yet less disturbing than the ideas behind them.
The contrast between surreal beauty and sheer horror both present in Annihilation leaves an immediate impression on me in addition to lasting layers of metaphoric and philosophical material, ambiguity and subtle clues to be chewed over and digested. Delicious! Highly recommended watch.