In an opening shot that may as well be a direct quotation from John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” a meteor originating from deep space streaks past the camera, striking a lighthouse along the United States coastline. That is perhaps the one conclusion of which we can be sure in “Annihilation,” a beguiling, female-driven sci-fi/horror head-scratcher in which “Ex Machina” director Alex Garland finds still more ways to convince us that homo sapiens are at risk of losing their spot atop the evolutionary chain — although this time, he’s working on a far bigger canvas and courting an audience that may not be entirely ready to flex their imaginations to quite the degree this ambitious brain-teaser demands.
For those willing to put in the effort, “Annihilation” achieves that rare feat of great genre cinema, where audiences are not merely thrilled (the film is both intensely scary and unexpectedly beautiful in parts) but also feel as if their minds have been expanded along the way: It is, or at least could be interpreted as, an alien invasion story in which the extra-terrestrial entity has no form, but instead works with whatever it comes in contact with — like some kind of nasty virus, or a particularly malignant cancer.
As such, it is fitting that the main character, Natalie Portman’s Lena, should have some expertise on the subject, being a John Hopkins professor who specializes in “the genetically programmed life cycle of a cell,” and whom Garland introduces lecturing about the way cells create perfect copies of themselves, duplicating endlessly — an oversimplification that is nevertheless helpful to keep in mind as Lena proceeds to witness all kinds of surreal mutations along the psycho-scientific mission on which she soon finds herself, following in the footsteps of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who came back zombie-like from a similar top-secret expedition.
Already, this is more than we ever learn about the narrator of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, the first in his so-called Southern Reach trilogy, where each book provides a different person’s firsthand account of an intense trip into “Area X,” the quarantine zone surrounding the contaminated lighthouse. In print, “Annihilation” was presented as an unnamed biologist’s field journal, whose wild descriptions and mounting paranoia invite readers to speculate that she may have been losing her mind. Whatever happens in Area X appears to change people, although Garland revises that to suggest Kane is the only person to have come back (whereas quite a few have returned in the book).
To call “Annihilation” an “adaptation” doesn’t really do either the book or the film justice. Written long before the sequels were published, Garland’s script seizes on key ideas from the novel, but spins them in exciting new directions, using his source as a kind of leaping-off point (even the opening meteor detail is a bit of a departure, albeit one with rich other-worldly implications) from which he offers five tough women a chance to make first contact with this alien presence, and perhaps save the human race in the process.
Outfitted like Ghostbusters in drab khaki coveralls, shouldering oversized supply packs and guns massive enough to put down a H.R. Giger monstrosity, this impressive all-female squad (each memorably differentiated by the actress who plays her) bravely undertakes what they have every reason to believe is a suicide mission, crossing the ominous, expanding barrier into “the Shimmer” — so called on account of the eye-catching opalescent rainbow patterns it casts across the thick swamp air (a neat trick that makes for a uniquely beautiful, and uniquely disconcerting, twist on the film’s marsh locations, enhanced in such a way that they grow increasingly stunning as the team ventures forth).
Skipping over their first hours inside the Shimmer, the movie never offers a satisfying explanation as to why they can’t leave or communicate with the outside world. But Garland gets away with it, since we’re as curious as his characters are to know what the lighthouse holds. Compared to their single-minded commanding officer, Dr. Ventress (a no-nonsense Jennifer Jason Leigh), and the three thick-skinned, hyper-capable military women along for the trip (Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, and Tessa Thompson), Lena at first looks like she might be the weak link, only to find that she’s a resilient soldier-scientist in her own right, having previously served seven years in the Army — and no slouch with a rapid-fire cannon either.
As sanity-testing quests go, this one proves as much an internal journey as a geographical one for Lena, and yet, the suspense never lets up. Imagine Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” with a strong no-nonsense heroine and pulse-racing creature attacks, and suddenly, such an excursion starts to sound enticing for those who otherwise can’t abide slow cinema (or the kind of ontological concerns this movie raises). Garland constructs “Annihilation” in such a way that details of both the Shimmer and the characters he’s assembled to explore it reveal themselves ever so gradually as the mission unfolds. It’s a smart approach that rewards the audience’s intelligence, rather than overwhelming them with conventional exposition, and keeps viewers leaning forward in their seats, searching for clues as to what the Shimmer represents.
This much we know, since Garland keeps cutting back to Portman’s clench-jawed character in some sort of isolation chamber, where she’s being interviewed by an officer in a hazmat suit after the mission: Lena is the only one to make it out alive. Or is she? Nothing is as straightforward as it seems, since whatever crashed into the lighthouse is capable of refracting everything in its vicinity, wreaking the same havoc in the genetic makeup of nearby organisms that it does upon the light itself.
From the moment they encounter their first mutation (a giant albino alligator whose powerful jaws have somehow developed a shark-like second set of razor teeth), Ventress’ team members — and the audience — understand that the animals here don’t behave like normal predators. But that’s nothing compared to the body-horror possibilities suggested by whatever the alien presence can do to humans, first revealed when the wary group reaches the bunker-like structure Lena’s husband and his comrades used as their base. Plus, the Shimmer seems to have an effect on their mental state as well, leading the nervous (and heavily armed) women to fear one another.
As Dr. Ventress puts it, there are two possible explanations for what happened to every group that went before: either something killed them, or they went crazy and killed each other. Except, “Annihilation” exists outside the realm of previous human experience, allowing Garland to toy with still other (im)possibilities — including the atavistic fear of how our bodies work on a microscopic level — by turning the characters’ very DNA against them, while doing even stranger things to their minds.
In keeping with the “Twilight Zone” tradition, the ultimate explanation is no explanation at all, but an ambiguous tease intended to cast everything that has come before in doubt. And yet, by leaving things open-ended, Garland raises questions beyond those of VanderMeer’s novel, shifting the focus away from hard science toward the psychology of his characters, and introduces a compelling dilemma, à la “Arrival,” that gives the film a welcome philosophical depth. Meanwhile, as nightmarish as some of its surprises can be, this uneasy environment calls for a breathtaking series of design choices, in which typically drab organisms express a dazzling array of colors. At times, it’s hard to know whether to swoon or scream — a tension that makes this world an intoxicating one to explore, while opening the imagination to all sorts of possibilities.