As artificial intelligence expands from sci-fi conceit to everyday reality, its implications inspire both horror and awe. Few recent movies have explored that divide better than writer-director Alex Garland’s robot rebellion thriller “Ex Machina,” and now it has some company with his stunning followup, which expands his thematic focus: Where “Ex Machina” argued that the machines are a few steps ahead of us, “Annihilation” suggests that the universe is even further along. At once a gripping jungle survival thriller and an alluring sci-fi puzzle, Garland’s heady gambit confirms he’s one of the genre’s best working filmmakers.
Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s first novel in his Southern Reach Trilogy, “Annihilation” finds biologist Lena (Natalie Portman, stern and focused, which also describes the movie’s tone) enlisting herself to follow an expedition into an abandoned American coastline overtaken by an enigmatic bubble. As she wanders a jungle overtaken by invisible processes that have led to unnatural plant life and at least one terrifying mutated bear, the body count rises and the mysterious threat builds. “Annihilation” falls neatly into a familiar tradition of survival stories stretching from Joseph Campbell to Ridley Scott, but it carries those tropes with a degree of confidence that leads to more far-reaching results in its climax, a satisfying and sometimes brilliant dose of Kubrickian storytelling that digs deep and goes visceral at the same time.
Deemed Area X, the region was previously explored in a military expedition led by her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac, in a robotic performance for reasons that become clear later on). He vanished there for 12 months, only to resurface in the middle of their kitchen with a vacant stare and failing health, a zombielike shell of his former self (think Dougie Jones on “Twin Peaks,” but a lot creepier). Snatched up by covert government agents, Kane’s put on life support, and Lena follows him to a hidden lair.
She has questions — first, for Dr. Ventress (a steely Jennifer Jason Leigh), the psychologist who has sent countless teams into the Shimmer, only to see none of them return; then, she turns to the squad of scientists that Dr. Ventress plans to join on the next attempt. They’re a serious bunch: Cass (Tuva Novotny), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and Anya (Gina Rodriguez) each sport impressive credentials, though Lena also notices another obvious throughline: “All women,” she asserts, and Josie corrects her: “Scientists.”
In other words, set aside questions about how well this movie passes the Bechdel Test (flying colors), because it doesn’t foreground that aspect of the dynamic so much as it sublimates it into the creepy survival saga to come. Once within Area X, the women find that their radio equipment has been scrambled and their compasses don’t work, ethereal plant life covers every inch of a swampy world defined by stillness, and the animals don’t look quite right. Strange humanoid plant structures dot the fields like an abandoned hill at Storm King. But even after the women unearth the source of the phenomenon (read up on electromagnetism beforehand if you must) it doesn’t begin to address the full nature of the threat at hand, and “Annihilation” careens toward a showdown that pits Lena against otherworldly circumstances that simultaneously channel Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.” and a Matthew Barney exhibition.
Despite the next-level payoff, the ominous journey sags into monotony midway through, but not without intent. Garland’s screenplay apes the matter-of-fact style of VanderMeer’s novel, where none of the characters had names and many circumstances lingered in ambiguity. However, where the novel’s blend of economical storytelling and survivalist thrills was a Kafkaesque variation on “Lost,” Garland’s cinematic interpretation plays more like “Alien” by way of Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” — it’s a horror show in which the survivors’ prospects are dim, but they’re consumed by an environment of ethereal beauty, and Garland makes it clear that those two variables can coexist.
While it’s a risky move for a studio in the first place, “Annihilation” doesn’t appear to have stemmed from the deepest pocketbooks on the Paramount lot, as the CGI effects reek of fakery. Fortunately, they’re consistent with a world filled by uncertainties, and complimented by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salibury’s moody, undulating score. The movie’s disorienting qualities stem from its unreliable narrator, Lena, who narrates the drama from an interrogation session ostensibly taking place in the aftermath of the mission. It’s a blunt, unnecessary framing device that often interrupts the moment-to-moment suspense of the expedition, but functions as a kind of narrative olive branch by Garland to frustrated viewers: “Don’t worry,” he seems to say. “This is definitely going somewhere.”
As it does, “Annihilation” inevitably stumbles on some of the crasser aspects of its survival thriller roots, including the raving maniac who gives into her nerves and threatens to derail the whole ordeal. However, Garland never loses control of the genre’s boundaries, instead using them to stabilize the story before catapulting to more ambitious heights.
“Annihilation” is quietly progressive on several levels, as both a female-centric blockbuster and a smarter alternative to big budget spectacle, which makes the charges of whitewashing it has faced especially ironic. While it’s true that Lena’s character was revealed as an Asian American in VanderMeer’s second novel, in the first, she’s a blank slate — and that extends to the movie’s thematic concerns. Its ill-fated characters wander a world overtaken by natural processes, rendering identity of any type — white, black, flower, gator — into a distracting construct. Nobody’s safe. The monsters come for all of us.
Oh yes, there are monsters. The aforementioned bear makes the beast of “The Revenant” look tame, and it’s hardly the worst menace Lena faces down. But the world of “Annihilation” is also gorgeous to behold. A timely ecological thriller that wouldn’t look out of place in Larry Fessenden’s oeuvre, the movie probes the interplay of beauty and terror inherent to all natural processes beyond humanity’s control with a measured gaze.
“What do you know?” Lena is asked in the movie’s first scene. It’s a practical question with abstract ramifications. What does anyone know? “Annihilation” may not dig as deep as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but it mines similar questions about the boundaries of human intellect when faced by an intangible threat.
“The eye is the best of artists,” Emerson wrote, arguing that seeing wonder in the world isn’t synonymous with grasping its processes. “Annihilation” ends on a speculative note that invites more theories than firm conclusions, putting a marvelous cap on its eerie trajectory with a menacing implication: In the survival of the fittest, nature always wins.
“Annihilation” opens nationwide on February 23, 2018.