The hypnotic, unsettling “Annihilation” explores the human impulse to destroy things

The cycle of life, and death.
The cycle of life, and death.
Image: Paramount Pictures
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Shortly before venturing into a mysterious uninhabited biome known only as “The Shimmer,” a psychologist and a biologist take a few minutes to discuss the difference between suicide and self-destruction.

Most people aren’t consciously suicidal, the psychologist explains. They are, however, self-destructive in some way or another (like choosing to venture into a mysterious uninhabited swampland known only as “The Shimmer” from which past visitors have never returned). The result is effectively the same as that of suicide.

The psychologist articulates what most of us inherently know but are afraid to confront: Something in our pysches, whether it’s programmed into our biology or the product of our experience, seeks to dismantle us from the inside out.

Through a series of psychedelic visuals and terrifying sequences, Alex Garland’s Annihilation probes that uniquely human compulsion to ruin good things. Loosely based on Jeff VanderMeer’s brilliant novel of the same name, Annihilation is a deeply disturbing trek into the mystifying parts of nature, both the planet’s and our own.

Natalie Portman plays a biology professor named Lena whose husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), a special ops soldier, suddenly returns home, a year after he went missing and was assumed killed on a secret mission. But he’s not the husband she remembers. He’s a lifeless husk of his former self, dead-eyed and ghostly. Oh, and very, very sick. He starts coughing up blood as his organs fail one-by-one. When the ambulance taking the couple to the hospital is intercepted by a cadre of uniformed men, Lena is tranquilized and wakes up in the care of the psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh).

Lena slowly learns what the hell is going on. Kane was part of an expedition into “The Shimmer,” a stretch of Florida swampland that some years ago was hit by a meteorite and began to expand and mutate, altering the flora and fauna along with it. And he’s the only person to ever return.

Lena, a military veteran herself, decides to sign up for the next journey into the unknown with the hope of discovering something that can save her husband’s life. She joins an all-woman team of scientists: Dr. Ventress, the psychologist; Thorensen, a paramedic; Sheppard, an anthropologist, and Radek, a physicist. Those familiar with VanderMeer’s novel will notice this is a change from the source material, which included only four women scientists, none of them named.

That’s far from the only change Garland made. To explain the various diversions would travel dangerously into spoiler territory, but know that the film honors the hypnotic aura of VanderMeer’s work while rerouting the story in some fascinating, unexpected ways. As an enormous fan of VanderMeer’s novel, I mourned some of the thoughts and concepts that were lost in its transition to screen, but Garland makes up for it in new, bold ideas he introduces in the film. The theme of self-destruction, for instance, was not one I really considered while reading the book. (You don’t need to read the book to enjoy Garland’s film, though it may enhance your understanding of “The Shimmer.” Both book and film are engrossing stories and can stand independent of the other.)

Annihilation features some of the essentials of the bio-horror genre: grotesque creatures, lush landscapes, things growing where they shouldn’t be growing. But it offers so much more than that. It’s a thrilling, original, relentlessly disquieting existential nightmare of a movie.

Knowing this, Paramount decided to hedge its bets with audiences, selling the international rights for the film to Netflix. (It will still be released in theaters in the US and China.) It’s a shame that much of the world won’t get to experience the film’s beautiful, brazen weirdness on a big screen, but the fact that a film like this is being released in theaters by a major studio at all is reason to celebrate if you’re a fan of smart sci-fi.

The final sequence of Garland’s film defies description. Like “The Shimmer” itself, Annihilation depicts a force of nature well beyond our ability to comprehend. And when faced with such a thing, how would we react? Fight it? Run away from it? Confront it?

VanderMeer’s novel is overtly environmentalist, arguing that humans need to figure out a better way to integrate into a natural world that is utterly indifferent to our existence. It doesn’t want to kill us, but it will, and it won’t care that it did. Annihilation contains the same message, but more subtly rendered.

And it explores dueling forces within human nature, too: Beneath our fierce survival instincts exists a contradictory phenomenon—often stronger than the instinct of self-preservation—that pushes us closer and closer to the edge of annihilation.

Our impulse to destroy isn’t restricted to ourselves, our lives and our relationships. It also becomes externalized and inflicts itself upon the world. Sooner or later, Annihilation implies, nature will reclaim what once belonged to it. Either that, or it will, over time, scramble the coding that makes us want to destroy everything.