It was kind of to be expected, really. Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina, was a strange blend that seemed a little strange, a little idiosyncratic and a little difficult for mainstream audiences. But it turned out to be a bigger success than most, including myself, thought it would be. So it’s obvious that Garland would be emboldened to go even farther with his follow-up and he absolutely has. The plot set-up is pretty typical sci-fi fare. There’s a strange phenomenon; teams have been sent to investigate phenomenon; they have either not returned or returned horribly changed; time to send in a new team. But out of this standard premise, Garland crafts a deeply strange meditation on identity and the unknown. The film is, in many ways, a movie most profoundly about the shifting, melding and shedding of identity. Why are we who we are? What made us who we are? What might unmake or remake us? Are we still who we were once we’re someone new? How much of us can change before we aren’t ourselves anymore? What part of us is the true seat of our identity? What is it that makes us who we are even as the exterior elements of our identity change? The film has no answers to these questions, so don’t go see the movie if you’re cramming for some sort of existential term paper. The movie only raises these questions in beautiful, profound and disturbing ways. If you’re conflicted about the coming Singularity, Annihilation is a movie that will freak you right the **** out. It has no utopian vision about how the loss of singular identity is freeing or how the freedom to change identity is inspiring; it’s a movie deeply conflicted about these issues, not to say purely terrified at times. The fate of one of the characters is particularly gruesome and ultimately really upsetting and horrifying to contemplate. The cast is really wonderful. Natalie Portman, fresh from her career best turn in Jackie, tops herself again with her best performance. The rest of the investigative team is pitch perfect; Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny and Jennifer Jason Leigh form a fantastic ensemble and the film gives them all moments of reflection and sorrow. And Oscar Isaac is, per usual, really wonderful in what amounts to an extended cameo. I think the most striking thing about the film remains the climactic scene, an extended encounter with . . . well, with something. It’s a deeply confusing scene that isn’t ever really explicated and I can’t express just how grateful I am that the studio somehow had the nerve to release the film without changing the ending. It’s a haunting ending, one that I was thinking about for hours afterwards. Garland had already established himself as a true cinematic artist with his debut film; with this follow-up, he’s staked out an even bolder position. Annihilation reveals a singular vision from an uncompromising artist, concerned with the weighty matters of existence and uninterested in commercialism. Garland’s heading for strange, alien territory and I’m on board for the trip, wherever it leads. 4 stars.
tl;dr – profound, challenging sci-fi film establishes Alex Garland as a singular, uncompromising artist; thought-provoking, disturbing and brilliant. 4 stars.