10:00 am EST, February 22, 2018

‘Annihilation’ review: Atmospheric tension at its most beautiful and horrific

Leave it to Alex Garland to make you question your life's choices.

Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a mind-bending, visually transfixing, and narratively compelling film that will leave you thinking, WTF?

Eleven teams entered the Shimmer. Zero made it back alive. Until now.

When Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns in dire straits from a secret mission, his wife Lena (Natalie Portman) aims to save her husband’s life, no matter the cost. It’s revealed to her that an environmental disaster zone has appeared and is slowly expanding, taking over the land. In an effort to find out what could have happened to her husband, Lena joins the next team into the zone as they attempt to uncover the cause of the environmental changes, and what prevented the teams before them from making it back alive.

The trek that follows uncovers horrifying truths, while Lena and the team contend with forces both physical and psychological as the mysteries of this environment try to stop them from leaving.

Annihilation is unrelenting in intrigue and tension, astutely balancing an atmosphere of awe and terror. The unnatural beauty of the quarantined zone easily draws you in, but it’s the ensuing uncanniness and mystery that keeps you engaged. The deeper the team goes, the more this isolated world reveals and unravels, much like those who pass through it. As the film progresses, questions that are answered only breed more questions, before everything culminates in a final moment of revelation and, you guessed it, uncertainty.

Related: If you think Ex Machina is about Ava’s humanity, you didn’t pay attention

A balanced blend of sci-fi and horror, Annihilation is terrifying both in what it does and doesn’t show. Unease lingers throughout the entire film. Whether inside or outside the quarantined zone, it’s hard to feel comfort. You may not know what’s wrong, but you can feel something is off, and this inability to relax keeps the momentum high. That isn’t to say there isn’t a fair share of the gruesome, with at least one scene in particular that might have you wish there had been something left to the imagination.

The visuals are not always horrific, however. The alien environment within our world is created and captured beautifully, with striking colors popping against muted tones. It’s easy to get swept up in the visual story, with the delicate florals and unearthly fauna. There’s even a hauntingly beautiful quality to the grotesque. You want to look away, but the image is too entrancing.

Acting across the board is stellar, even if the characters are not flushed out. The dynamic between Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriquez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, and Jennifer Jason Leigh works well. All involved skillfully balance the uncertain trust that comes from five strangers who have been thrown together into a dangerous situation. Although, their characterization feels unnatural at times, as backstory is mostly short-cut in one-off conversations, rather than organically throughout.

As the protagonist, Natalie Portman’s Lena is treated to more screen time and development. She’s the only one we see interact with characters outside of the core five. Of note is her relationship with her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). We see what she’s like before, during, and after his disappearance, the type of person she was versus the type of person she became. Lena is largely presented as ambivalent though. Despite the fact Annihilation is told from her perspective, you can never be sure whether you can trust her or not.

Related: Ex Machina director Alex Garland on his talented cast, future of AI

For better or worse, Annihilation leaves you with fewer questions and mystery than in some of Garland’s stronger work. Ex Machina shines from an ambiguity of good and bad, while Sunshine tests your patience with high stakes choices. Annihilation lacks the nuance Garland excels at, this time opting for more expository dialogue, when silence and obscurity would likely have struck with more impact. Nevertheless, Annihilation is a solid addition to Alex Garland’s filmography, with a narrative that will transfix, visuals that will enchant, and an ending you’ll lose sleep over.

Grade: A-

‘Annihilation’ opened in theatres February 23, 2018

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