One of the main things I love about horror films is the overwhelming sense of dread they can make you feel. I love going through the same emotions the characters are. Constantly uneased and tense, with an odd feeling forming in my stomach anticipating what could happen next. An excellent way to build that dread isn’t just through what the film is showing you, but also what it’s asking you. You should always be in fear for the characters, as that’s what makes horror films work by giving them suspense. However, there are other ways to terrify people, especially when that horror starts melding with science fiction.

In Annihilation, an extraterrestrial object lands on a beach, spreading the Shimmer: a large, mysterious environment that keeps growing larger and larger. Whenever people are sent in to investigate and find out what this is, they either never come back, or if they do, they’re horribly sick on the verge of death. After her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) comes back from the Shimmer coughing up blood and other fun stuff, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) offers to explore it with the next team that will be going in. Once they all enter the Shimmer, their journey becomes fraught with dangers that consists of mutated fauna and sudden psychological confusion and trauma. What does the Shimmer truly hold?  

WARNING: Minor spoilers for Annihilation are inbound. If you want to retain the mystery, then I’d recommend not reading any further and checking it out!

Horror films don’t often ask you why you’re scared of what you’re seeing. They just hope that they scare you and if they did, then hey, job well done. Science fiction is all about questioning what you’re seeing. Marveling at these otherworldly events, but at the same time asking yourself, “What if?” Annihilation is all about the “what if”, especially in the case of biology. As our characters embark further and further into the shimmer, things get weirder and weirder. Several days have passed, but it only feels like a day to them. Several flowers of different species grow from the same branch. Crocodiles are developing multiple rows of teeth, akin to sharks. What’s going on? Well, as it turns out, the Shimmer is a gigantic prism, and it’s refracting the surrounding life’s DNA, causing all of it to mutate. That surrounding life also includes our characters, whose cells begin to mutate, affecting their bodies and minds. There were a lot of fascinating ways this idea was explored, although I wish the film were longer to experience even more of this crazy idea. For one example, where were all the bugs? 

The implications extraterrestrial force arriving on Earth, taking over the environment and rapidly mutating everything around it is both fascinating and terrifying. Species are of course still evolving to this day, but nothing that we can really observe over a short period of time. Evolution is all about adapting to one’s own environment to survive, and once they’re inside the Shimmer, everything seems okay. They can still talk, breathe, and think (for the time being), but they’re no match for the rapidly changing environment and dangerous animals around them. When we’re up against something that’s clearly so much more advanced then you, perhaps it’s time that the human race has run its course. We tried our best, but now something greater is taking over. We’re certainly not fit to survive in this new world.  

Everything can’t just be all crazy ideas and intrigue, though. I know some science fiction fans are perfectly fine with that, but for me, a lot of that would mean nothing without a solid emotional connection. The content is intriguing, but why should I really care? Well, like the recent excellent sci-films Arrival and InterstellarAnnihilation has a solid emotional core, here between Lena and Kane’s relationship. Throughout Lena’s journey, we’re treated to flashbacks showing her and Kane’s loving marriage. Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac have great chemistry, really selling the romance during their brief scenes. Lena is doing everything in this not just so she can help get a better understanding of the Shimmer, but to hopefully find a way to save Kane’s life too. She even forms a bond with her four teammates, all women with their own sets of unique skills and knowledge. We don’t just see the rational minded Lena try her best to survive, but others on the team are a bit more tense and not as trusting, causing them to be on edge. The actors are all great, but their characters aren’t as developed as much as Lena’s, who is the true heart of the story.

Writer/director Alex Garland made a big name for himself back in 2015 with his directorial debut Ex Machina. Like his debut, he doesn’t just bring along the thought provoking themes, but also a palpable sense of dread. This is just as much a horror film as it is a sci-fi one. When the opening scene showed something from space crashing to Earth backed by eerie music, it filled me with a discomfort that didn’t leave me until the end credits. When the film finally ended and the words Annihilation appear on screen, I felt like I could finally take a deep breath and relax.  There are some truly terrifying sequences, especially one where our characters watch some handicam footage from the previous team inside the Shimmer. It reminded me a lot of Sinister with the grainy aesthetic and creepy music. Not just that, but a fantastic sequence featuring a mutated bear and an intense, nearly dialogue free climax makes this probably the creepiest horror film I’ve seen since The VVitch: A New England Folktale.

With Ex Machina and now Annihilation, Alex Garland proves that he’s one of the most exciting and interesting filmmakers working today. He’s that special kind of breed that wants you to be entertained, but also take something back with you after watching. I commend Paramount for doing a wide release and giving $40 million to a film like this. While it’s certainly not for everybody and may not make huge waves at the box office, I hopefully see a growing audience in this film’s future. One can only hope. It’s smart, thought provoking, creepy, unsettling, and all around beautiful. The more films we get like Annihilation, the better. 


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