An overly simplified history of SF film would note that giant monsters, spaceships, and alien invaders dominated the 1950s. After 1977, many SF movies took their cue from Star Wars. In between, we had a lot of mysterious, cerebral films that explored the territory more typical of written SF. These often had head-expanding twists and turns.
Alex Garland's Annihilation has more in common with those "in between" movies.
Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist with a military past, reunites with her husband, a soldier who disappeared a year earlier during a clandestine mission. Soon, Lena finds herself on the latest, most science-based team to investigate "the Shimmer," a mysterious region that has been growing in the Blackwater Forest following an arrival from space. Of the people who have investigated, Lena's husband is the only one who has returned, and he has no memory of what happened.
The Shimmer is full of wonders and horrors, some of them inherent to the region. Others the investigators bring with them.
The film, loosely adapted from an existing novel, amounts to a quest, of the sort imagined by countless storytellers, writers, filmmakers, gamemasters, and little kids playing pretend. The party suits up and wanders into the unknown, with the protagonist having something a little more personal at stake. Yeah, stop me if you've heard this one before.
The partial solution to the mystery, however, and the enigmatic ending, take the tropes into places viewers will find less familiar. With the recent death of Gene Wolfe, I found myself thinking, at certain aspects of the ending, of The Fifth Head of Cerberus. Many others will see some specific similarities to H.P. Lovecraft's "The Color Out of Space." Annihilation, in the end, is its own creature.
Garland gives us intriguing visuals and concepts without considering himself above the more popular elements of horror and SF. In an era of dumbed-down entertainment, politics, and thinking, he makes films that engage his audience's brains and explore the human condition. At the same time, we get literal monsters, and a few impressive horror scenes.
Against the SF/horror elements, we have a cast acting credibly and realistically. Indeed, they're often depressingly low-key, until pressed by real danger. Don't expect this team to engage in a steady stream of witty banter.
Annihilation is far from perfect. It occasionally feels disjointed, and some scenes move more slowly than seems necessary. While the film is more expensive and expansive than Garland's earlier Ex Machina, it manages to be a lot less clear in its thinking.
The lowest point for me, however, is its reception. It cost over forty million to make, and made back about that much in its theatrical release. Annihilation simply could not find its audience. One simple theory may be that it had too much indie/theatrical drama and too few mutant animals for the horror and adventure crowd, and it was a little too disturbing and (in places) gory for the cerebral audience. I'm speculating, of course. It has fared better with home viewers.
Jeff Vandermeer always intended the source novel to be a trilogy. All three have since been published.
Don't expect a sequel to the film.
Directed and written by Alex Garland from the novel by Jeff Vandermeer
Natalie Portman as Lena
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr Ventress
Oscar Isaac as Kane
Gina Rodriguez as Anya Thorensen
Tuva Novotny as Cassie Sheppard
Tessa Thompson as Josie Radek
David Gyasi as Daniel
Benedict Wong as Lomax
Sonoya Mizuno as Humanoid / Katie
John Schwab as Paramedic
Sammy Hayman as Mayer
Josh Danford as Shelley
Kristen McGarrity as Lena Double
Cosmo Jarvis, Daniel Prewitt, Matthew Simpson as Special Ops Soldiers