In 2014’s Ex Machina, the first film directed by the longtime genre screenwriter Alex Garland, the subject was male fantasies and male fears: What if you could create a perfect woman tailored exactly to your specifications, and then what if this new Eve slipped her leash, handed you a poisoned apple, and walked away smiling? The movie mocked the male gaze of its two Silicon Valley dudebro protagonists, one the megalomaniac Elon Muskian mogul and the other his nice-guy employee, as they vied for the android hottie the mogul had engineered into existence—but it also shared that gaze, treating the feminine as something inherently unknowable and dangerous even as it laughed at the men undone by a robot supermodel.
So perhaps to balance things out, Garland has now given us a creepy sci-fi movie, Annihilation, in which it’s the female gaze and female anxieties that dominate the storytelling. The source material is the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” trilogy, a voyage into the uncanny that blossoms into something more baroque in its later books. Garland has kept the novel’s basic premise and the major characters while opting for a stripped-down mythology and a necessarily more closed-off ending. The book and the movie therefore make interesting companions, with the latter less a strict adaptation than a variation on a theme.
That theme is bodily transformation—the sense of unintended impregnation, of things growing within you that you do not understand, the fear of natural rhythms going haywire, the experience of reproduction as the displacement of the self. Such feelings can exist in men as well as women, but they are far stronger for the sex that experiences menses, childbirth, menopause. And it’s that sex, the fairer and more vulnerable one, that experiences the transformations that make Annihilation such an eerie little trip.
The main character is a cancer researcher, Lena, played by Natalie Portman and introduced giving a lecture whose slides show a metastasizing tumor. She is ex-military and the wife of some sort of special-forces operative (Oscar Isaac), who went on a mission a year back and has apparently vanished into whatever theater he was assigned to. Except then he suddenly reappears, back in their own home, without fanfare and without some essential aspect of himself. He is a phantom in her house, a dead-eyed version of her husband, who can’t seem to tell her where he’s been and is soon vomiting up blood.
This sends them to the hospital, but on their way they’re picked up by a task force, which hustles them off to the site of his mission—the “Southern Reach,” a military command post on the outskirts of an anomaly known as “Area X.” This area is an expanding piece of southern swampland with a lighthouse near its heart, which is surrounded by a rippling, iridescent phenomenon called “the Shimmer” that makes it impossible to tell what’s happening inside. Military expeditions keep getting sent into it; her dying husband is the first soldier to (somehow) have made it back.
So naturally Lena joins up with the latest expedition, all female this time and scientists instead of grunts—with a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny), and the expedition’s slightly off-kilter leader, a psychologist named Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Except soon they’re all off-kilter, as they wander in a lush and verdant landscape where time telescopes and plants flower impossibly and strange beasts lumber out of the swamps.
The first such beast is an enormous alligator that has grown a shark-like ring of teeth inside its jaw. It turns out that Area X, whatever its ultimate purposes, is running a wild genetic-engineering lab, one that can combine and recombine across species and within them—until animals grunt in human voices and women sprout flowers from their skin. The question of what happened to the earlier expeditions—did they get killed, or go mad and kill one another?—soon has a both/and answer: The landscape can kill you, but so can the changes happening inside your team members’ minds and bodies, inside your own suddenly unstable flesh.
The movie is worth relaxing into, if that’s possible with its science-fiction/horror mix and occasional jump scares. Annihilation is haunting and gorgeous, a collage of impossible images, and it’s more effective the more dream-like you let it feel and the less time you spend analyzing the journey into Area X as an actual military mission. (Portman, in particular, has the right psychological intensity for her role but is somewhat miscast as a former G.I. Jane.)
This is particularly true of the ending, which uses dream logic to construct its deus ex machina (before giving us a maybe-twist to close things out). It’s emotionally resonant and starkly beautiful; it also doesn’t really make a lick of sense. But I was in the mood to be forgiving: In a movie such as this one, which shows you fear in a handful of flowers, the right degree of unsettlement can cover a multitude of sins.