For those who prefer atmosphere and intelligence over action

The trailers for Annihilation featured vicious mutated animals attacking people in an otherworldly setting in an obvious attempt to entice the large audiences who seem to revel in violent action. For me, the trailers did not make the film look original or exciting, with the action scenes suggesting Annihilation would not be my kind of science fiction film.

I had been transported so completely to a different world that it took me hours to find my way back to earth.

But Annihilation was written and directed by Alex Garland, whose last film, Ex Machina, is one of the best and most thoughtful sci-fi films in recent years (if also a little violent), so I decided to take a chance. That was one of my better film-watching decisions of the year (the worst was deciding to watch Game Night last week), because Annihilation is my favorite film of 2018 so far.

Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biology professor whose husband (Kane, played by Oscar Isaac) went missing in action and is presumed dead. Until a year later, that is, when Kane suddenly walks into Lena’s house. Lena is shocked and delighted, but senses immediately that something is wrong with her husband, both physically and mentally. It doesn’t take long before Lena is rushing Kane to the hospital in an ambulance. On the way, the ambulance is intercepted by mysterious people in black vehicles who kidnap both Kane and Lena.

When Lena wakes up from her sedation in a building in the middle of nowhere, she is greeted by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who introduces Lena to a scientific anomaly—a strange shimmering that looks (to Trekkies like me) like some kind of force field. The forest beyond the shimmering wall can be seen, but every person (all men) who has tried to explore what lies beyond the shimmering has failed to return (except for Kane, whose health is deteriorating rapidly). With the area contained within the shimmering steadily growing in size, Dr. Ventriss decides to send in another group of explorers, this time a group of only female scientists (including herself). Joining Ventriss are Gina (Anya Thorensen), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (Tessa Thompson). Lena is invited to join them. Bad things happen.

So far, Annihilation sounds like a fascinating episode of Star Trek: an inexplicable mystery that is costing lives and threatens to expand into population centers if the crew of the Enterprise doesn’t stop it. But this isn’t Star Trek. It’s much darker, much more serious and, yes, much more thoughtful. The intelligence, pacing, and atmosphere reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic sci-fi films, Solaris and Stalker, as well as the more mystical elements of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and last year’s wonderful Arrival, while the tension and fear are almost worthy of Alien.

As in Arrival, the protagonist of Annihilation is a woman, but this time virtually all of the characters in the film (except in flashbacks) are women, which is a welcome change from the typical male-dominated sci-fi films. The five women, all of whom are hiding something, are not particularly well-developed characters, but well enough (and well-acted enough) to add a unique flavor to this sci-fi mystery. This unique flavor is powerfully enhanced by the luscious cinematography and a mind-blowing score that overwhelms in a positive way. The result was the feeling that I had been transported so completely to a different world that it took me hours to find my way back to earth.

As advertised (in the trailers), Annihilation does have a few gory violent scenes that I didn’t enjoy at all, but aside from those relatively short scenes, Annihilation is my favorite kind of thought-provoking sci-fi film, the kind that requires a long discussion afterwards of the “what really happened here?” variety. This brilliantly-structured, haunting, intense and scary work of pure science fiction is my idea of fun, though I know most people prefer the lighter more superficial escapism of Black Panther, which I admit is a surprisingly good superhero film (if it can really be called that).

If you can handle the gore, I highly recommend watching Annihilation on the big screen while you have the chance.

Annihilation is rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.