“Annihilation” Brings Weird Fiction to Big-Budget Filmmaking

Editor’s note: This article contains mentions of depression and self-harm.

“That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die.”

Among all of H.P. Lovecraft’s mind-bending prose, this sentence may come closest to a thesis statement for weird fiction, the genre his writing popularized. The word “weird” seems to exist in the uncanny periphery of our understanding of the world. Weird fiction, then, is gothic horror written to instill a terror that lingers far longer than any work of pure horror.

Toward the close of the first act of Alex Garland’s Annihilation, five women stand before a shifting wall, reminiscent of the polychrome texture of a bubble which may as well be an embodiment of the “weird.” This is the Shimmer, an unidentified force that has enveloped a modest section of the coast of Florida, expanding outward from a mysterious lighthouse. Although some have entered, only one stone-faced soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac) has returned — the husband of biologist and soldier Lena (Natalie Portman), who now risks joining the ranks of the lost in a desperate bid for answers. Those answers are never simple, and over the course of the film’s runtime, viewers will find themselves by turns confused and terrified but not necessarily satisfied — this is all by design. Annihilation is an oddity among Hollywood book adaptations simply by virtue of its weird-fiction source material.

Besides a failed attempt by recent Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro to adapt Lovecraft’s opus “At the Mountains of Madness,” weird fiction has had trouble making it to the big screen by virtue of its inaccessibility. In that case, the studio demanded the film be strangled by a PG-13 rating, while del Toro demanded the R rating it deserved. If anyone were poised to accomplish what del Toro could not, it would be Garland — fresh off his hard-R cult sci-fi hit Ex Machina, Paramount Pictures seemed willing to let him do whatever he wanted. And that is exactly what he did. When a top executive expressed concerns about the third act of the film after a test screening, Garland refused to take the notes and released precisely the movie he had in his head. The result is a fantastic achievement of weird-fiction filmmaking that caters to its genre with sparse but effective scenes of gut-wrenching horror before one-upping itself with parallels to struggles with mental health.

Annihilation is not for those with weak stomachs. Although only a couple of scenes break from the film’s generally nonviolent slow burn, they may offer some of the most disturbing imagery in non-exploitation cinema; one in particular is bound to disgust even the most jaded audiences. Yet they are wielded with surgical precision, dripping with plot and tangible stakes that make it difficult to look away, no matter how strong the urge. It’s surprising that a director famous for a straightforward rogue-AI film so deeply understands what it means to elicit fear — the terror of Annihilation creeps like the mold infesting the Shimmer’s overgrown world.

Saturated in deep greens and vibrant oranges, that world is as richly realized as any other that’s hit the silver screen. Annihilation shares the biological fascination of its protagonist, taking glee in the sometimes-beautiful, sometimes-hideous mutations caused by the phenomena emanating from the lighthouse. As Lena — joined by the grizzled Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), iron-willed Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), composed Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and thoughtful Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) — makes her way toward the fabled tower, the film’s imagery escalates to something out of an LSD-induced nightmare, culminating in a final act so feverishly strange as to leave viewers dazed for hours after the credits roll.

No matter how much Annihilation threatens to go off the rails — which it eventually does with brilliant, title-dropping aplomb — it remains grounded in its cast of well-realized characters, particularly its protagonist. Portman’s performance is excellent, fully embodying a character who undergoes dramatic transformations multiple times over the course of the film, and Isaac — Garland’s Ex Machina darling — is predictably endearing, boasting an implicit sense of trust which Garland uses against the audience to unsettling effect. Every performance here is top-notch, but special mention must be lent to the magnetic Leigh, whose turns in The Hateful Eight and Twin Peaks: The Return seem to portend a welcome Leigh-assaince. Every single one of these characters is, to some extent, broken — after all, Garland asserts, they’ve all entered the Shimmer seeking to be destroyed. “We’re all damaged goods here,” says Novotny’s Cass in a rare moment of exposition.

Though the title may indicate something apocalyptic, Annihilation is chiefly concerned with the destruction of the self. The pitch-perfect script seeks to show rather than tell, imbuing each character with clear motivations that all operate as means to a shared end — that is, the end of their lives. Viewers with a history of depression have reported feeling a heightened connection to both the film’s themes and imagery — Garland has created a powerful, stealthy metaphor. Although Garland began as a novelist, Annihilation proves that he was made to direct, capable of working on multiple layers without any of them feeling half-baked or overwrought. These prismatic facets collide in the final confrontation, a bold, completely unforeseeable literalization of both struggles with mental illness and imposter syndrome that borders on performance art — made all the more effective by its near-wordlessness.

Annihilation’s commitment to gothic themes of self-destruction and the seductive power of the unknown suffuses its every frame and spoken line, resulting in a journey at once personal in its focus and sprawling in its implications. Paramount should receive notable credit for releasing it on a staggering 2,112 screens across the country, as the meager box office returns are proof of what that executive knew as soon as the credits rolled on that test screening. For all of audiences’ complaints about a lack of originality in big-budget releases, statistics show that other than broadly-marketed films like Get Out, wholly original offerings like Annihilation just don’t bring people to theaters. In a sad illustration of a growing trend, the film will be released internationally on Netflix March 12. While that may result in a cult following, online viewers will miss out on a stunning theatrical experience. So catch it in theaters while you still can — and try not to look away.