“Annihilation,” about strange places, strange in the heart and the mind, is itself in a strange place: producer Scott Rudin, who held final cut, ended a battle with a co-financier by approving screenwriter-director Alex Garland’s finished version. As a result, Garland’s second feature (after “Ex Machina”) is released in theaters only in the United States and China, and in a few weeks in the rest of the world via Netflix. (Along with “mother!,” “Annihilation” is one of the last movies approved by late studio head Brad Grey, a sweetly startling final legacy.) Garland’s movie moves on mood and implication, except when it doesn’t, and turns to bursts of disturbing terror or lightly lysergic biological poetry akin to imagery by Björk and her visual collaborators. While there are passages of the body horror best exemplified by David Cronenberg’s films, there is more mirroring of movies by Andrei Tarkovsky in its cool pulse, especially the journeys into the unknown and into forbidden zones in “Stalker” and “Solaris.” (The influence of Stanley Kubrick winks and glints through, as well as nods to the wonder of landscapes by Terrence Malick.)Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist with seven years military experience who joins a mission into “Area X,” along the American coastline where her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) had disappeared the year before, and has returned without notice, ill and noticeably weird. Within the classified area where Kane had been, an alien occupation by a phenomenon marked by a fauvist wash of translucency, dubbed “the shimmer,” is advancing, and no other search parties have returned. Lena joins five other women, with professions including scientist and soldier, into the voracious unknown. (The other volunteers are played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny.) Adapted freely from Jeff VanderMeer’s best-selling “Southern Reach Trilogy,” Garland’s movie starts with the concept of cells dividing, and dividing again, to create life and forces of death, but also with mirroring, sounding a striking metaphor that involves surrealistic explosions of prismatic mutations of life forms within the shimmer to inspire lingering fright. The climax is a dance with doppelgängers, and a metaphor made real from Lena’s earlier talk of an innate biological drive to self-destruction. (For extended reading, I commend these two rich essays: Josephine Livingston’s “‘Annihilation’ Is a Brilliant Splicing of Woolf With Cronenberg“; and especially, Angelica Jade Bastién’s vital, personal “How Annihilation Nails the Complex Reality of Depression,” which begins, “Let’s talk about what it means to destroy yourself.”)
Ambition and quiet, forceful grandiloquence impress on the big screen. At home, once suctioned onto Netflix, at muted scale, “Annihilation” will become very much about trust within a marriage between equals as outside forces of alienation weigh on them. It’s two pictures, but best big and loud, strange and now. (A quibble in the otherwise simple yet adroit production design that picks at the lost-in-space-and-time parable: within a deserted compound the patrol finds inside the zone, British-configured electrical outlets surround the rooms.) 115m. (Ray Pride)
“Annihilation” opens only in theaters Friday, February 23.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.