(Quick note: This trailer is definitely not representative of the style of the film, though certainly of the feel. It’s a slower film than this presents and the stuff you see is even creepier and weirder in the actual film proper.)
Who’s This For?
Sci-Fi aficionados, anyone who wants to support strange and unique big budget filmmaking, anyone who really liked Ex Machina, fans of Andrei Tarkovsky, people who want to see something legitimately new on screen.
Who’s Gonna Be Turned Off?
Most general audiences, any fans of the book who expect total devotion, anyone who expected a traditional horror or thriller flick, anyone who’s not ready for a slow flick, anyone who’s watching right before bed
It’s important first and foremost for those introduced to this through Jeff Vandermeer’s brilliant book to understand that this is ABSOLUTELY in no way similar to the book. While it maintains the spirit of discovery and wonder and terror, the film takes an entirely different narrative direction. One that is equal parts easier to grasp narratively as it is harder and scarier to grasp thematically and more disturbing in its imagery. This is not guaranteed to be loved by those who loved the book, but I think anyone who enjoyed that will enjoy this movie as well.
The actual movie itself is a rare sort of achievement. Seeing it makes it very easy to understand why Paramount was so nervous about its release (especially after their insanely ambitious and artistically brilliant mother! so famously crashed last year [not before becoming my favorite film of 2017]). This is not an easy or pleasing film. It is ambiguous and difficult to comprehend and disturbing in a way few major films ever are.
The best comparison (beyond things like Stalker that this film directly cribs on or Arrival that this film shares a space with) is the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft is infused in this film through the depiction of things that should not or could not be. Annihilation is filled with images of creatures and places and phenomenon that seem wrong, like their existence is a challenge to humanity. Terror in this film comes from trying to wrap your brain around how something might exist and the rejection of the forms that you see.
It is to director/writer Alex Garland’s credit that I can legitimately say that there are things in this film that I have not seen before, even a few things I actually don’t have the vocabulary to describe. Think the end of 2001, an ending this film’s last 20-30 minutes sits comfortably alongside. Garland’s incredibly steady hand (influenced heavily by Tarkovsky) keeps things carefully trained and unfolding just slowly enough to wrap your head around before you get a new challenge that plunges you deeper in. You may be confused, but you’re never lost, and that’s the sign of the great work Garland does here.
This is not a character-based movie, these characters exist as archetypes inside a world that’s engulfing them. There is no character development, they exist to serve a larger purpose. The cast does amazing with that, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Gina Rodriguez being marked as particular standouts. But if you’re seeking grand heroes, it’s gonna be hard to discover how little they matter but as vectors to something stranger and grander than they are.
This is maybe the best set of visual effects I’ve seen in a movie in sometime. What’s created feels natural to the world without ever looking obviously CGI’d while still maintaining just enough distance from reality. Kudos to the SFX and Production Design and Camera teams all around on this one, this is an impressive world they’ve created and some of what’s here still lingers with me.
Should You See It?
I think it’s worth supporting any film made on this scale with this budget and this many ideas in its head. You want more things that are new and weird and fantastic? It requires your dollars. Moreover, it’s worth showing Paramount that things like this don’t have to be relegated to Netflix.
But beyond that, it’s worth it as long as you know what you’re getting going in. You’re getting something difficult and disturbing and divisive. Something that’s new to fans of the book and even newer to the general audiences coming in fresh. A whole lot of folks are gonna stream out hating this movie and you may be one of them.
But if you’re not, you get one of the most singular, jaw-dropping, chilling and mind-blowing cinematic experiences of the year so far. You get new images and new thoughts. You get something that will leave its print on you long after you’ve left the theater.