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Annihilation is a stunning science fiction thriller from the director of Ex Machina

With clear parallels to Stalker and an outstanding, all-female lead cast, Annihilation ranks among great philosophical sci-fi.

Natalie Portman stars in Annihilation.
Natalie Portman stars in Annihilation.
Paramount Pictures

“Almost none of us commit suicide. And almost all of us self-destruct,” Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) midway through Alex Garland’s sci-fi-horror-thriller Annihilation. It’s something she has thought about before, especially since the two women are part of what Lena considers a “suicide mission” into Area X, a region that was once a national park and now is a danger zone, covered by a mysterious aura they call “The Shimmer.”

Annihilation is the brooding, skillfully constructed chronicle of that journey. It’s a beautiful and haunting film, and another examination of what makes us human from Garland. The director’s last film, 2015’s Ex Machina, posited that our capacity for empathy and desire is both what distinguishes us from other creatures and what will ultimately destroy us.

In Annihilation (based on but quite different from Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel) he continues the theme. As another member of the expedition into Area X tells Lena, anyone who volunteers for this mission is “damaged goods” — someone with a healthy and functioning life would never set out for a place from which nobody has returned. Though they’re there to try to figure out what the Shimmer is, it’s the desire for ... something ... that pushes them to volunteer.

The nature of that desire is the subject of Annihilation — in a way that strongly evokes Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 sci-fi thriller Stalker — which circles the suggestion that what we all want most is to lose ourselves completely. We crave our own obliteration.

Annihilation’s expedition into a strange locale doubles as an expedition into its members’ psyches

Ventress and Lena are part of a five-person expedition into Area X, which became covered by the gradually expanding Shimmer three years earlier. Other expeditions have gone in before them, but the only person who’s ever returned is Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who turns up in a near-catatonic state after a year’s absence, then starts spewing blood.

Lena hurries him onto an ambulance, but then wakes up, disoriented, in what appears to be a military hospital on the edge of Area X, with Kane kept in an isolation unit. After a briefing from Ventress, who is steely and unsmiling, she becomes convinced that she needs to join the next expedition into the Shimmer, alongside Ventress, Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and Radek (Tessa Thompson) — all scientists, and all willing to risk their lives to see what’s inside and maybe figure out what it means.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, and Natalie Portman in Annihilation
Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, and Natalie Portman venture into the Shimmer in Annihilation.
Paramount Pictures

The parallels between Annihilation and Stalker, then, are there from the start. Stalker (also loosely based on a novel) concerns a group of men who venture illegally into the “Zone,” a region that is tightly controlled by the government. They go in to find the “Room,” a place where the wishes of anyone who enters are granted.

Along the way they have a series of highly philosophical conversations that slowly reveal the deepest desires of their hearts — and the journey, it turns out, is less about getting to the Room and more about getting inside their souls.

The Area X expedition is trying to make its way to a lighthouse which was struck by a meteor of some kind, apparently creating the Shimmer. On their journey, they take samples and measurements, and they discover that time is warped inside.

And most importantly, they come to realize that the Shimmer is a kind of refracting agent that’s operating on the organisms inside in ways that are sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying, and certainly uncanny. The effect it has on each of them is different, too — and in ways that expose their deepest desires.

Annihilation is about desires and their natural end: our own obliteration

Desire is the subject of Annihilation. To desire is human, of course — and by nature, as a species we harbor a diverse set of desires: to be intimate, to be known, to live another life, to feel, to forget.

In Annihilation, those desires are refracted through the five women who embark on the expedition. But all desires, the movie proposes, naturally lead toward the same end: to lose ourselves entirely and be subsumed by something bigger. It seems related to the concept of Nirvana.

That Annihilation is such a disquieting film to watch suggests this idea has at least some root in fact. Glimpses of Lena’s life before the expedition help us see the complicated torment of her own desire and the ways she’s tried to quench it, and as we come to know the characters, we see how that’s true for all of them, and how they all resolve the problem of how to get beyond themselves — or how it is resolved for them.

Tessa Thompson in Annihilation
Tessa Thompson in Annihilation
Paramount Pictures

The complicated nature of desire is the subject of Stalker, too, which partly revolves around a story of a man who reaches the Room and has his wish to become wealthy granted, only to turn around and kill himself. What we truly desire, Stalker suggests, is what will ultimately take us apart from the inside. If we get what we really crave, it asks, will it be too much to bear?

While shooting Annihilation, the film’s cinematographer Rob Hardy wrote in a post on Instagram that Stalker was “the only film to appear in the research library” for Annihilation “for obvious reasons too numerous to mention here.” It’s “a metaphysical journey into an area where the laws of nature do not apply,” and the result is visually unnerving and gorgeous. As in Stalker, Annihilation features several scenes that are difficult to look at, even gut-churning, and yet strange in their beauty (and some that are just outright ripped from a dreamscape).

That the expedition is populated by five women, played by five stellar actresses — it’s hard to pick a standout — adds a startling depth to the film. Instead of seeing an exploration of desire through the more typically male filter that often drives thrillers, action, science fiction, and horror, we see it through female eyes. And that makes each piece feel fresh and unexpected.

In fact, though its parallels to Stalker are undeniable and Garland has an established track record in the science-fiction genre, Annihilation feels wholly unexpected and raw. It is a disturbing film for reasons that are almost metaphysical. It rarely moves quickly, the camera lingering over images that are hard to forget because they’re so eerie, the story leaving just enough unexplained to evoke mystery and wonder.

Annihilation is the sort of film that lodges itself in your brain and makes you turn it over and over again as it settles in your bones. That’s exactly what philosophical science fiction ought to do — and with this movie, Garland establishes his place as one of the best sci-fi filmmakers working today.

Annihilation opens in theaters on February 22.