The Doomed Mission is a substantial trope in sci-fi action-adventures like Annihilation, but it's one that director Alex Garland and Co. (and maybe Jeff Vandermeer, but I haven't read his book upon which the film is based) approach in a notably holistic manner. “Why did my husband go on a suicide mission?” asks Lena (Natalie Portman), a military biologist, of Ventress (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), the hardened psychologist. Ventress's response, an intuitive gloss of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, suggests that the instinct for self-destruction pops up in mundane ordinary habits: through over-drinking, over- working, or abandoning what and who you love. Then, the psychologist throws the question back at the cancer-cell biologist. Why does life produce the conditions of its own demise? Who said that self- destruction is a purely psychological phenomenon? What makes Annihilation exhilarating as sci-fi is that, like 2016's Arrival, it's not about scientific knowledge as a unified system, but about the differences embedded within the sciences, in this case, between biology and psychology. The script, on the other hand, isn't nearly as methodical and didactic as Arrival's, which means that you'll have to parse out these differences by meddling through a propulsive yet opaque narrative arc.
There's even less plot than the trailer teases. Things get going when Lena explains the basics of cell division to her university students—we all may originate from a single cell, goes the theory we'll be contemplating for the rest of the film. In the next scene, she's mourning her disappeared military husband, Kane (Oscar Issac), for a few minutes before he suddenly walks through the front door, triggering a series of events that leads Lena to join a team going into The Shimmer. The Shimmer is an expanding singularity that originated from a meteor, whose existence the government wants to keep secret. No one, excepting Kane, has ever returned from it. In hopes of finding a reason for his mysterious organ failure, she ventures with Ventress and Co. on their Doomed Mission to the lighthouse at the Shimmer's center.
Once we're inside, Annihilation resembles films by Andrei Tarkovsky, not in just in imagery, but in decisions about the pacing of dialogue. Stalker (1979) and Solaris (1972) are prequels to Annihilation, certainly. But—and I find this detail more essential than most critics—the film spends just as much, if not more, time being an action horror movie, complete with preying CGI monsters and militaristic gun battles. Before we enter The Shimmer, Gina Rodriguez telegraphs the genre-flip by introducing us to a character, Anya, reminiscent of Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) in Aliens. Once inside, a jump scare commences a series of events that consistently amplify a sense of dread, all while the film truly begins to dig into its thematic core. Garland, the author of 28 Days Later and maybe the Halo movie, is clearly at his most comfortable at the busier, more tense moments. The editing transitions from half-heartedly elliptical to crisp and kinetic.
Your opinion of the film might revolve around the question of how well it combines the taut action with its larger scientific questions, or if the Spielbergian moments of wonder actually say anything about its characters. In my view, the film spends a good hour in a very comfortable place of existential unease, which is to say it's contemplative and thrilling at the same time. Psychologically, Annihilation doesn't want to go that deep—conversations don't ever reveal much about a character, nor does anyone really do much to break out of the mold cast in their first 10 seconds of dialogue. When the pacing works so well, it feels like an appropriate decision to keep characterizations bare. Additionally, generous readers will take the aforementioned gap between psychology and biology to excuse the film's disinterest in what anyone might be thinking. There's no point in being disappointed that the poetry of the script doesn't verge on Tarkovsky—the film can show its concerns in other ways: through action and video game aesthetics, through the curt poetry of very basic biological concepts, and with the (perhaps overly) repeated visual motif of a splitting cell. Although it probably tries to be too many kinds of movie at once, Annihilation manages to foreground the questions that inspire it.
Most impressively, Annihilation produces some genuinely profound body horror—not the kind that causes revulsion, but the kind that inspires thought about how complex and contingent morphology can be. We imagine, with the filmmakers, radical changes inside and outside the structure of the organism; an endless series of combinations and imitations create an entirely new ecosystem. One masterful tableau recalls a Francis Bacon painting: something sickly, fecund, and abstract, all at once. Even the brutal acts of violence carry with them, however perversely, a sort of visual splendor. If Garland's first film, Ex-Machina, won the special-effects Oscar for being a sleek machine, this film grabs out attention for the opposite reason. It testifies to a vivid imagination concerning biological forms and makes a fun game of cross-species connections. Trees have been growing with hox genes of humans. Inversely, a human can slowly become a tree. Development is everywhere, destruction is everywhere, death and life become interchangeable around the halfway point of the movie. One creature quasi-resurrects a character, but only preserves her Wilhelm scream. By the climax, The Shimmer seems to be inclined to mimicry, resulting in a version of a mirror-gag that concludes the movie on a poetic punchline.
Inside The Shimmer, Garland produces a moody and vivid thriller: outside of it, some of the film's weaknesses are glaring and disheartening, especially in the editing department. An interrogation-based framing device feels mandated by the studio for the purposes of audience comprehension, yet every word Lena utters effectively deflates tension—the script over-explains some ideas, and skirts over obvious questions. Furthermore, the imagery of the frazzled survivor, draped in a hospital gown, circling around catchy aphorisms to an audience of hazmat suits, is a tired trope. Oscar Issac and Natalie Portman can't even muster the strange, distant chemistry of Hari and Kris in Solaris. Crosby, Stills, and Nash's “Helplessly Hoping” is the central relationship's musical cue and it cuts through the soundtrack like a knife. But, as a blaring substitution for real chemistry, the song works. “Helplessly Hoping”'s primary poetic device—alliteration—seems to illustrate the heady concept of "genetic refraction," one of the film's central ideas. A phrase develops out of repetition, a stanza grows through a cycle of regressive movements. (Helplessly hoping/ her harlequin hovers nearby.... Wordlessly watching/ He waits by the window/ and wonders/ At the empty place inside / heartlessly helping himself to her bad dreams) Then there's this chorus:
they are four for each other
What's the use of a romantic subplot in Annihilation? You could ask the same question about Stalker, which is legible, but also slightly underdeveloped, without its meditations on love. Ex Machina risked reducing questions of artificial intelligence to the masculine gaze, but his new one has a more formal, removed approach to the entire affair of sexuality. It explores, mainly by force of abstraction and violent action, how two becomes one and one becomes many. The film might lose a certain humanism in its devotion to such formalism, and the very underhanded, un-Tarkovskian way it doesn't explicitly ask the questions it is asking, but Annihilation isn't defiantly anti-humanist, either. The film invites the depressive and depressing consideration of ourselves as organisms on a rapidly changing planet. Taken on good faith, that position makes up for some flailing about at the end of the story, which, after all, isn't really the end.