Annihilation emerges as the Big High Concept Movie of 2018. It comes from a 2014 novel by US author science-fiction Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer followed it with two book sequels Authority (2014) and Acceptance (2014). Annihilation was a long time in pre-production during which its reputation built. It however emerged to a mixed response following initial test screenings, both Garland and producer Scott Rudin fought efforts by the distributor to change the downbeat ending. The film received a mixed audience response, vying between those that celebrated it for its conceptual reach and others that called a disappointment.
I have always been fascinated with this type of film one where people enter into a borderland zone where the rules of the normal world no longer apply ever since I saw Andrei Tarkovskys Stalker (1979) at a young age, wherein a trio of men set out into a closed-off alien zone where the rules of normal physics no longer apply. I have always had a love of films that approach that same territory efforts like Cube (1997), the Beyond episode of The Animatrix (2003), The Lost Room (2006), Monsters (2010), YellowBrickRoad (2010), Radius (2017), arguably tvs Lost (2004-10). Indeed, you could say that the spirit of Andrei Tarkovsky hangs over Annihilation. Alex Garland creates the Shimmer Zone with a budget that Tarkovsky must only have dreamt of. Equally the theme that comes to dominate in the latter half of doppelgangers created by the alien presence very much echoes the themes that ran throughout Tarkovskys earlier Solaris (1972) of an alien intelligence creating doubles out of peoples memories in an attempt to make contact with humanity.
Garland creates a great deal of fascination in the build-up. The initial return of Oscar Isaac his blankness and unfamiliarity and the rather chill line where he talks about seeing himself at the door and says of Natalie Portman I remembered you as though she was no more than a memory starts things off in a fascinating way. The journey into the Shimmer Zone takes place with a great deal of intrigue the party awakening after their first night to find they have been there for several days but with no memory of doing so. The strange, scientifically impossible biological mutations including the video footage of Oscar Isaac opening up a mans stomach to reveal a large snake-like thing moving in there; or the group finding an empty pool inside the complex where it looks like the same man has exploded into multi-coloured fungus. Alex Garland creates alien landscapes of the party coming across the remains of a settlement where human-like figures made of flowers stand frozen like sculptures in a field, or Natalie Portmans journey to the lighthouse across a landscape of crystalline trees. The most outlandish moment in the film is the one where the group are tied up in a room and are attacked by a mutant bear with a quasi-human-like face that cries help me.
Alex Garland creates a genuinely alien atmosphere. The pace of the film is on the slow side although this is nothing compared to Stalker where Tarkovsky would let characters sit in silence for minutes at a time. You have a fascination with wanting to know what the party are going to encounter at their destination. This reaches a fascinatingly weird ending where [PLOT SPOILERS] Natalie Portman reaches the lighthouse to find the video of Oscar Isaac having killed himself with a phosphorous grenade aided by what she realises is his doppelganger, only to then venture down into the tunnels beneath the lighthouse and emerge followed by an alien lifeform that mirrors everything she does.
The film reaches a downbeat and enigmatic ending that contradicts the book and its sequels (which Garland points out did not exist at the time he started writing the script). It is this ending that switched off many of the Annihilation detractors. It is certainly one where Garland subverts the build-up. You expect an epic meeting with the alien perhaps akin to the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Solaris but what we get is more something akin to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) where the pod people are the protagonists (perhaps). It feels very similar to the climax of Ex Machina both Ex Machina and Annihilation feature regular protagonists venturing into an area to meet with non-human entities that mimic the human form and an ending in which we see that the non-human entities have turned our expectation of them on their heads. Its an ending that is muted and not fully satisfying in terms of where your expectations build the film up to going. That said, the rest of it is still a fascinating and beautifully made work.