Annihilation review: The beauty and horror of creation

Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures and Skydance via Paramount Press
Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures and Skydance via Paramount Press /

The new film Annihilation will terrorize and challenge audiences this weekend, but is it worth your time?

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Director Alex Garland is no stranger to sci-fi, possessing one of the strongest resumes in the genre currently. Before making an explosive directorial debut with Ex Machina, he wrote several films including a film I consider underrated known as Sunshine. What makes his writing so strong is the most important element needed for this genre:  Knowledge of science.

In his new film, Annihilation–based on the book by Jeff VanderMeer– Garland takes his expertise and executes one of the strongest adaptations for the genre in years. The film takes a lot of liberties from the original novel, but the essence of VanderMeer’s scientific nightmare is fully realized.

The film focuses on Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist whose husband (Oscar Isaac) vanishes after taking a mysterious job. It’s been 12 months since his return, and by this time, she has already convinced herself he is dead. One day, he appears home, with no explanation of how he got there. Moments after his return, he is acting strange and becomes critically ill. This results in her finding out where he has been all this time– a mysterious place known as Area X.

Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures and Skydance via Paramount Press /

The film takes its time setting up a lot of characters before getting to this place. We find out a lot about her husband Kane and who he was involved with. We also get brief glimpses of their marriage before his eventual disappearance. Once we get to Area X though, the film becomes an entirely different beast.

The visual and art design of this movie is insane. Area X literally feels practical almost 70% of the time we are inside it. Yes, the movie has CGI creatures that appear, and some of the backgrounds are digitized, but many of the plants, creatures, nature seem like things you can reach out and touch. Some of it is beautiful, but beneath the beauty of the environment is a lot of terrifying possibilities. The novel touched on nightmarish concepts, and Garland brings them justice. I never realized bears could be scarier than they are, but I’m wrong. They are made scarier in this movie in a brilliant way.

Leaving eye candy aside, the story is going to either make or break viewers this weekend. This is not a movie wishing to spoon-feed its audience. A lot is held back for viewers to piece together themselves, and there are tons of layers to peel back before connecting the pieces. Not to mention themes, which this film has many– including marriage, creation vs. destruction, man vs. nature, etc. I’m interested to see the conversation surrounding this movie in the coming weeks because the ending is challenging.

Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures and Skydance via Paramount Press, Annihilation /

The character work is great in Annihilation, reminding us once more why films like Prometheus frustrated fans. This is a movie where smart people make smart decisions, and despite their best efforts, they are constantly outmatched. They are not making stupid choices for the sake of plot devices. They are a victim of an environment far more complex than their educated sensibilities, which makes them vulnerable as the film pushes forward.

Then there is Natalie Portman, who does not get the respect she deserves as an actress. She really is one of the best working actresses of our time and Annihilation is further evidence of this. Her character Lena is dealing with grief, but there’s an understated toughness in her performance that never requires dialogue. The finale also requires a lot of her, and I cannot imagine being on set watching how this was executed.

I do not have many nitpicks because those who have read James VanderMeer’s novel realize the difficult task Garland faced adapting this property. There are passages from the source material that literally seem unfilmable. The sheer ambition of even accomplishing a movie adaptation of this quality from the text is worth the praise alone.

Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures and Skydance via Paramount Press /

Next: Annihilation movie ending explained: What happened in that final scene?

Overall, Annihilation is another visual and storytelling achievement for the science fiction genre. It’s a movie that treats the audience like they have intelligence and allows the viewer to think for themselves. It takes the audience down a thematic road about the beauty and horror of creation. Annihilation will not be for everyone and because of this, it’s a hard film to recommend. This said, if you are willing to embark on the terror of Area X, you will have a refreshingly unconventional experience in the theater.

Annihilation is now in theaters.