Annihilation is one of those mystery-cloaked movies in which so much depends on the final resolution that you can’t really assess it until the end. But there is no final resolution: Questions simply remain unanswered, or only partially answered, and after spending much of the movie enthralled I walked out of the theater deflated.
Even more so than in Ex Machina, the previous film by Annihilation’s writer-director Alex Garland, Annihilation flings around cerebral sci-fi and fantastical elements without ever wrestling them into a meaningful shape. Is it cool to look at? It’s ravishing. It’s sumptuous. But what does it all add up to in the end? It’s hard to say.
Most of the movie takes place within “the Shimmer,” an unexplained environmental phenomenon that began when an otherworldly force struck a lighthouse and has gradually been spreading over a swampy area. Gazing upon it from afar, the area looks like it’s dissolving, its colors streaking up and blurring like a Monet painting. It’s unclear what is happening within because all of the soldiers sent to explore it have failed to return home — except one, and he is so dazed he can barely speak.
He is Kane (Oscar Isaac), who was presumed dead in a secret military mission but instead has inexplicably returned home a year later to his wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist. Shadowy government agents bring the pair to the compound they’re operating on the edge of the Shimmer, seeking more answers as to what unruly energy is coursing through it.
Since the last expedition failed, the G-men send Lena, who has seven years of military experience, and four other well-armed scientifically-minded women into the Shimmer to try to figure out what is so lethal about it. Does something in the Shimmer kill everyone who enters it, or does it cause people to go crazy and kill one another?
While the women patrol through the woods, they discover that compasses no longer work and time goes screwy. The Shimmer is causing unheard-of mashups of DNA, creating strange mutant beasts like a giant white alligator. A mutated bear has somehow learned to scream like a woman. As the women get picked off by the killer beasts, the film is on the surface a kind of distaff version of Predator, but its real purpose is oblique and psychological. It’s meant as a Freudian journey into our deepest, dankest selves. The team leader, a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) working for the secretive government agents, sees through each woman’s insecurities and muses about the difference between suicide and self-destruction, the latter being a gradual accumulation of bad choices. This ties in with the world as seen by Lena, an expert in cellular mitosis: She describes aging and cancer as instances of our cells declaring war on us. The physicist (Josie Radek) of the bunch finds that the Shimmer is a kind of systemic prism that distorts everything within it, from radio waves to DNA. Maybe people’s minds are getting a little warped too.
Annihilation doesn’t shape a satisfying conclusion out of all its wonderment.
Working at a deliberate pace recalling Stanley Kubrick’s films, Garland and the visual-effects team create an enchanting, eerie landscape of marvels, from crystal trees to unnerving people-shaped plants, and the film (very loosely adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel) is heaving with intriguing ideas: What might a world halfway between plants and animals look like? To what extent are people their own worst enemies? Though the film isn’t overtly environmentalist and manages not to bring up any of those nudge-nudge references to global warming that have become routine, it could also be read as a parable about humans carelessly destroying our home planet not out of malice but the way an alcoholic or a drug addict gradually ruins his soul’s home.
Translating questions into glorious cinematic tableaus isn’t enough, though: Unlike Denis Villeneuve’s similarly thoughtful and somber Arrival, which came to a point with a heartbreaking and surprising revelation in its closing minutes, Annihilation doesn’t shape a satisfying conclusion out of all its wonderment. In the end, the viewer is left to judge for himself exactly what has happened and what it means. Making movies steeped in vagueness these days is proving to be an excellent way to earn critical praise, but being artfully ambiguous strikes me as a way to cover for not being able to finish the job.