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Alex Garland, the visionary writer-director behind Ex Machina, obsesses over ideas of what it means to be human. With Ex Machina, he explored the inception of A.I. and how true artificial intelligence blurs the line between human and “other” to dizzying, disorienting and apocalyptic result. In his writing effort Never Let Me Go, Garland posed similar – if less refined – questions, posing an analogous emotional experiment with clones as the test subject, begging his audience to work out what separates “us” from “them”. “If they feel, are they not too human?” was the central thrust and this idea has continue to haunt Garland’s films. Never Let Me Go was a lesser effort but came from a place of ripe ideology and artistic thoughtfulness, traits which Garland has never lacked and has gone on to define to great effect.

From our beginning, humans have a tendency to demonize the “other” – and this is in part an evolutionary response that for millennia has worked to favor superior species – but Garland, always working from an emotional basis, isn’t so much interested in archaic notions of good and bad. Black and white morality from a global, nay universal, perspective is trite. Dull even. It’s why Eva was never really a villain in Ex Machina so much as a curio. We don’t objectively root for the human characters in that film per se. We’re much more interested to witness Eva’s growth, irregardless of consequence. Perhaps we’ve outstayed our welcome, Garland’s films suggest over and over again.

With Annihilation, his most ambitious effort yet, Garland takes this idea even further – what is human and, further, why is it worth protecting? – shucking off familiar notions of protagonist vs. antagonist in this mind-fuck-heavy, but shockingly intelligible, dreamworld with environmentalist undertones. There aren’t explicit good guys or bad guys, just people interacting with a foreign environment and Garland manages to still create apocalyptic stakes nonetheless. Unspooling his adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name with great care, Garland’s film moves with the internal logic of a waking nightmare. Creatures arrive as if from hell itself – bears fused with screaming human vocal cords, sniffing for prey with a metallic, beak-like skull of a head – and their presence helps inform the piano-wire tension sustained throughout.

Annihilation begins, like so many films, with that most human of emotions – love. Natalie Portman’s Lena, a biologist, professor and former soldier, grieves for her husband, a special forces agent missing in action for a full year. Just when all hope seems lost, he (Oscar Isaac) shows up in the midst of their kitchen, clothed in all black, hair slicked back, unable to even feign emotion. As if in a fugue state, he remembers nothing of the last twelve months. He’s mortally wounded, coughing up blood. More troubling are his eyes, the window to the alleged soul. There’s no question – this man is a shell of his former self. En route to the hospital, shadowy government officials swoop in and make off with their missing soldier and his unsuspecting wife.

Things get more hopeless when Lena wakes to learn that more than just her relationship hangs in the balance, the entire planet is in desperate shape, an asteroid collision creating a zone, named “The Shimmer”, where the fabric of reality itself is manipulated in inexplicable ways. And it’s growing. No one who has entered The Shimmer has made it out alive, save for one. Her husband. Lena, hoping against hope to learn the means to save her husband’s insides inside, volunteers to enter The Shimmer with a group of female scientists and begins a journey towards personal and global salvation through the looking glass. What awaits them defies easy explanation.

Annihilation succeeds in giving artistic form to the indescribable – VanderMeer’s book has long been called “unfilmable” – creating a fractal landscape that feels like Lars von Trier adapted a Lewis Carroll story. Colorful and creepy, this is a distorted world, an upside down reality where literally anything goes. Lena describes the phenomenon they witness as “continuous mutation” where plant, animal and human DNA stain one another like a red shirt absconding in a load of whites. Various genus of sprinkle-colored moss cakes the landscape, giving it a coat of feral trippiness that’s simultaneously beautiful and threatening. A pleasing synthesis of practical effects and economically applied CG makes Annihilation a visual marvel, stretching its 40 million dollar budget to rival the effects of just about any $100M+ blockbuster. This is a movie you lean into for its entire 115 minutes, rarely pausing to take a breath, one you want to soak up with the eyes, ears and brain alike.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny join Portman to make up this awesome and mostly-well-utilized squad of smart, capable women but as much as Annihilation involves its audience with characters, the heady themes and visual brushstrokes often take precedence. Garland isn’t one to dumb down the material either, casually including eye-popping details without necessarily drawing your attention to them – watch, for example, the forearm infinity tattoo. The deeper we get into The Shimmer, the less the rules of physics and reality apply. When we finally enter the source of all the reality-buckling, it’s as if we’ve stepped into the final minutes of 2001: Space Odyssey and your mileage with this film will likely correlate to how much the intangible intellectualism of Kubrick’s masterpiece resonates with you. No doubt, it’s weird but in a logical, spellbinding way.

A kaleidoscopic miasma of duality and identity, Annihilation manages to also be exciting as hell, slipping in a handful of scream-at-the-screen moments and grotesque body horror shots that had me stomping my feet and watching through the cracks of my fingers. Portman is fantastic (as is Oscar Isaac) and Garland’s film sticks the landing with a fantastic final tableau that may mystify and frustrate the less involved audience members but, at least for me, seemed precisely in line with everything we’d seen and felt before.

Coming out of the screening, I overheard a swatch of initial reactions from fellow moviegoers. Everything from “That was horrible. You shouldn’t even release that” to “That was amazing – a masterpiece” and I for one would fall much more in line with the later opinion. Bold, daring, smart and emotionally rousing, Annihilation is the kind of sophomore follow-up you hope for from a director with as good a debut as Ex Machina, a progression in form and style that proves that he’s willing to continue to experiment with the medium and push it in new and interesting directions without losing those underlying driving philosophical forces and deep-seated questions about humanity. Garland’s films rarely end on a happy note but, with Annihilation, shows an artist  increasingly at peace with his reckoning.

CONCLUSION: ‘Annihilation’ marries elements of smart science fiction and toe-curling stabs of horror to tell a heady, intellectual creation myth that dares to challenge conventional ideas of human superiority and evolutionary necessity with mesmerizing visual flair to back everything up. A perfect sophomore film certain to scare off those looking for easy answers.

A

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