Whether you will appreciate “Annihilation” largely hinges on how you feel about rules.
Writer-director Alex Garland disregards them almost entirely in his latest sci-fi movie, which opened Friday and made just $11 million on its opening weekend. The genre requires filmmakers to bend reality, but Garland goes a step further by subverting traditional storytelling techniques, as well.
The film follows biologist and U.S. Army veteran Lena (Natalie Portman) as she investigates a mystical, rainbow-colored entity expanding throughout the South called the Shimmer. Previous teams, one of which included her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), entered the dome-shaped zone only to disappear forever. Lena and four others — paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), psychologist Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson) and anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) — hope to avoid the same fate while examining the Shimmer’s simultaneously beautiful and horrifying life-forms.
“Annihilation” is an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel in the loosest sense of the word. A whitewashing controversy called Garland’s technique into question more than a week before the film’s release. Then he shared in an interview with Google that he adapted the book “like a dream” — instead of rereading it, he wrote from memory.
“In some places, it will correlate very closely, and in other places, it won’t,” he said. “It’s a dream response to a dream book.”
Critics’ responses to the results were mixed. The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr deemed the feature “a beautiful heap of nonsense,” and the New York Times’s Manohla Dargis argued that Garland “engages in too much narrative throat clearing.” The Post’s Ann Hornaday wrote that the final moments of the film devolve into “a muddle of histrionics and deeply unsatisfying weirdness.”
Much of “Annihilation” does come across as if it were written by someone tripping on acid. But this might appeal to fans of David Lynch and other storytellers whose seemingly nonsensical writing reflects the ambiguity faced by the characters themselves. Garland’s writing mimics the scientists’ fear of slowly descending into madness in a way that straightforward writing couldn’t. And while the film includes the usual monstrous obstacles — crocodile-shark hybrids and skull-faced bears, specifically — emotional impulses drive all the action.
As with his directorial debut “Ex Machina,” Garland’s cerebral thriller asks viewers to think for themselves. We share the frustration of Benedict Wong’s character, Lomax, who questions Lena about what she experienced in the Shimmer. More often than not, her answer is, “I don’t know.” The subsequent flashbacks answer questions about how the dangerous, psychedelic swamp came to be, but enough are left open-ended to encourage discussions afterward.
“Arrival” screenwriter Eric Heisserer tweeted that he encountered four friends discussing the ending upon leaving the theater. “Each had a specific, different theory that resonated personally with them,” he wrote. “As is, the movie lets them all find a meaningful and bespoke connection. Clarity would have disappointed at least 3 of them.”
Many reactions on social media shared the positive sentiment. Actress Hari Nef praised the writing and visuals — calling it “vast surreal beautiful dramatically whole and deeply unsettling” — while others such as BuzzFeed News’s Anne Helen Petersen praised the female-dominated cast: “The best part of Annihilation is the part when 90% of the dialogue is spoken by women and 95% of the action is performed by women.”
Though “Annihilation” has been distributed to American theaters, Paramount sold the international rights to Netflix in December. Fans of the film criticized the studio for this decision, arguing that it deprives those outside of the United States of the proper viewing experience. Whether to hear the weird musical cue boom or to see the swamp’s psychedelic beauty on the big screen, the film is meant to be seen in a theater.