“There are two theories of what went wrong in The Shimmer,” says outgoing paramedic Anya Thorenson (Gina Rodriguez) in an exposition-friendly early scene. “One: something kills them. Two: they go crazy and kill each other.” It goes without saying that Annihilation, adapted by Alex Garland from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, has no interest in any puzzles that are so easily solved. Everything about the film becomes hazier the more you try to focus. Time is unreliable, geography even more so, and the characters become just as uncertain. When Anya desperately repeats this statement later on, the idea that she could have ever thought things would be so simple as a or b is incomprehensible.
Annihilation begins on relatively familiar genre turf. After being MIA for a year, Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns home to his wife Lena (Natalie Portman) and promptly goes into some kind of violent cardiac arrest. They’re both spirited away to a government facility named Area X, where Lena is told about The Shimmer, a localised but expanding environmental disaster zone that is penetrable and yet still inexplicable. Kane was part of the last team to enter to try to reach the Lighthouse (ground zero for whatever caused this) to find out what happened, and he’s the only person who’s ever come back. As an ex-military biology professor, Lena is the perfect candidate for the next run and volunteers to join the four women (“scientists,” as softly spoken physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) corrects Lena) heading in.
There’s an awful lot of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in the film, both in the team’s ambling quest that seems to lack urgency until things are life or death, and in the way the landscape offers incredible beauty and utter horror often side by side. This is, of course, no bad thing, as Garland skilfully weaves existential questions into a medium-budget genre movie in which our heavily armed heroes are regularly confronted by raging mutated monsters without ever giving the impression of grudgingly throwing the audience a treat in the form of an alligator attack or a splatter of gore.
Instead, that balance between self-contemplation, action, sci-fi and horror has the effect of disorienting the viewer even further and it pushes the film further into its own unclassifiable space. There’s more to the wildlife of the Shimmer than the beasts, with beautiful and fascinating mergers of plants and human anatomy. The remains of a previous team member are found plastered onto a wall, stretched almost beyond recognition in an explosion of flora, and foliage found growing to the form of a human hints at a world in which every single cell is in flux, just waiting for the right nudge to create something wonderful or terrifying.
That verdant blend of Giger and Carpenter is fantastic, but what will really stay with you is the effect all this has on the characters. At one point, Lena asks psychologist and team leader Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) why her husband would have volunteered for what seems to be a suicide mission, a question that opens just as many wonderful avenues of uneasy exploration as the stated mission goal to discover what the hell is going on, and the strong cast does incredible work as the Shimmer begins to unravel these brilliant and capable minds.
Portman arguably has the hardest job as Lena, a character who is emotionally open and frequently warm in the film’s several flashbacks and determinedly unreadable everywhere else, and she gives an excellent performance. Gina Rodriguez (Jane The Virgin) and Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) are the two standouts and both show impressive range, Jennifer Jason Leigh expertly hints at the struggles beneath Ventress’ disaffected demeanour, and Tuva Novotny (Borg McEnroe) impresses as Cass Sheppard, the team’s geomorphologist whose friendly practicality masks a personal tragedy. Each woman is trying to keep a lid on something and each will be tested by the unique challenges the environment presents.
Garland has done a superb job of bringing VanderMeer’s weird fiction world to life, but while the shocks and splendour of the Shimmer make for a thrilling genre movie experience (backed by a fantastically uncanny score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury), it’s the all-too-human questions that really get under your skin and it will be days before that lingering sense of unease dissipates.