If you’ve been following along with my reviews over the years, I’ve always been pretty transparent about my love for high-concept sci-fi cinema. Good, bad, and everything in between, if a director can challenge my critical thinking with their storytelling, I’m a happy camper. For his follow-up to the brilliant Ex Machina, filmmaker Alex Garland has taken Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation and adapted it for the big screen, resulting in a breathtaking sci-fi spectacle that’s as thrilling as it is thought-provoking. While I can’t speak to how successfully Garland captures the spirit of VanderMeer’s book, what I can say is that he’s crafted an ambitiously bold and unforgettable body horror/trippy sci-fi thriller mash-up unlike anything I’ve seen in quite some time, and Annihilation is another huge step forward, albeit a somewhat risky one (more on that later), for Garland’s burgeoning directorial career.

In Annihilation, we’re introduced to Lena (Natalie Portman), a cellular biologist who teaches at John Hopkins University after changing career paths once she wrapped up her time serving in the Army. She met her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac,) while in the military, but he has gone missing after a secretive mission some 12 months prior, leaving Lena to pick up the pieces at home. One day, he mysteriously shows up, but something is amiss—and before Lena can get answers, she finds her beloved being hurried away to a government facility where a psychologist by the name of Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) fills her in on just what may be affecting her spouse. Lena is told that Kane had been part of a team that entered “The Shimmer” in Area X, a stretch of land that has been affected by an alien presence, defying all perceptions of time as we know it, and standard biological laws to boot.

During its years-spanning residency here on Earth, no one has ever returned from “The Shimmer” either, which has made Kane’s return even more perplexing. In search of answers, Lena heads into the region alongside an all-female team led by Dr. Ventress, but none of the women are fully prepared for what awaits them inside the dangerous region that wields a deadly influence over all its visitors.

On a visual level, Annihilation is a remarkable feat, brimming with otherworldly and ethereal visuals that make for an unsettling juxtaposition against the horrors lurking around every corner in “The Shimmer,” including oversized beasts with inexplicable genetic anomalies and insidious plant life—some with the ability to mimic the human form. Quite possibly the greatest threat that these women face during their journey, though, is each other, as we see how the alien forces are able to manipulate their minds and their bodies, tearing them apart both inside and out. Garland marries his trippy imagery with several savage set pieces in Annihilation, fully embracing the all-too-familiar genre formula of putting an isolated group in peril so that we can watch them get picked off one by one.

But instead of just serving up more lambs for the slaughter, Annihilation mixes up that tried-and-true recipe by giving viewers something of a (pardon my French) mindf—k experience, where the more time we spend in ”The Shimmer,” the harder it is for us to tell just what’s real and what is a side effect of the manipulative energies at work. Also, it’s incredibly nice to see characters make reasonable decisions and react with some intelligence, too—nice work there, Annihilation.

Portman’s performance as Lena in Annihilation is among some of the best work she’s done throughout her already impressive career, portraying a quiet mix of intelligence, stubbornness, and a stoic sense of duty in her quest for the truth about what happened to her husband. Leigh also delivers a wholly compelling character in Ventress, a secretive woman who carries many burdens with her into “The Shimmer,” and we see how they continue to drive her despite the danger all around her. Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny round out the squad in Annihilation, and the trio of actresses do a fantastic job of making their respective characters feel lived-in and fully realized, even with Lena being the main focal point in the story.

As mentioned, I’m not sure how Annihilation the movie compares to Annihilation the book (suffice to say, the latter has now made it onto my Amazon wish list because I was so overwhelmingly intrigued by the source material), but as far as great science fiction cinema goes, Garland’s latest ranks up there as one of the most ambitious and audacious offerings we’ve seen grace the big screen in the last few years. That being said, because the material is so bold and heady, and Annihilation’s story ventures into some unconventionally imaginative territories, it’s an experience that isn’t going to be “easily consumable” by the masses, but that’s what made me fall in love with it even harder. I love when stories can deliver something truly unexpected and challenging, and Annihilation does just that (and then some).

Paramount has been ballsy over the last year or so with films like Annihilation and mother! on their release slate (and I’d even put The Cloverfield Paradox in there as well), and I will always applaud any studio that’s willing to gamble, because that’s how you get memorable big-budget films that push the boundaries of storytelling. Will this latest roll of the dice pay off for Paramount? It’s hard to say for sure, but I do hope it does, because both Garland and his endlessly fascinating adaptation are worthy of any and all success they earn. Something else that I thought was very interesting in Annihilation is that we see a familiar face from Ex Machina (no, not Oscar Isaac) pop up early in the movie, and if that’s Garland’s way of building his own shared universe with these two films, sign me up for anything else he has in mind for future projects.

Movie Score: 4/5

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.