Anchored by a visually stunning fantasyland setting, a cerebral cocktail of plot and theme, and a fierce cast of women warrior-scientists, Paramount Pictures’ Annihilation hits U.S. theaters today to a flood of positive critical reaction.
“In just about every respect, it’s the finest cinematic sci-fi in years—or, at least, since [director Alex] Garland’s prior Ex Machina,” wrote The Daily Beast’s Nick Schager, echoing the popular sentiment for this adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name.
The premise is simple enough: a meteorite crashes into a Florida lighthouse, unleashing a mysterious rippling force field dubbed the Shimmer. This dancing wall of color and motion slowly expands, and the zone within changes, like a puncture in reality, filling with enormous genetically mutated animals, overgrown plants sized and shaped like humans, and other oddities alternately novel and terrifying. Eleven expeditions have entered – only one person has returned: Kane (Oscar Isaac), the husband of ex-soldier/biologist Lena (Natalie Portman). He is diseased and dying and has been reduced to a sub-human state of mumbling and fear.
Partly in hopes of saving him, Lena joins an all-woman expeditionary force – led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and also including another doctor, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), and anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) – on an exploration and recovery mission. Within the Shimmer, they lose communication with the outside world. Their compasses and other instruments fail. As they trek through the increasingly wild landscape, the DNA mutations transforming the forest creatures infest their bodies, their memories fail, they lose their sense of space and time.
What happens between there and the final wrenching scenes has critics elated. “Annihilation is a ferocious, feral, female-centric update of fearsome monster classics like The Thing and Alien,” writes Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter.
Here’s a deeper look at what the critics love most about Annihilation:
“This is a serious, considered film,” writes Richard Lawson in Vanity Fair.
And it is. At once a thriller, a science fiction thought piece, a horror flick, and a tale of environmental catastrophe – while hinting at humanity’s ultimate helplessness against a huge and ruthless universe – Annihilation manages to accomplish many things at once with an expansive and intricate plot.
“For those willing to put in the effort, Annihilation achieves that rare feat of great genre cinema, where audiences are not merely thrilled … but also feel as if their minds have been expanded along the way,” writes Peter Debruge in Variety.
Wandering this other-Earth burbling dreamlike within the Shimmer, the explorers amble over a landscape that resembles some videogame fantasy world, where predators roar with the screams of past victims and the intensifying light elides the distinction between illusion and reality.
“Annihilation, which was shot by Rob Hardy, has an ominous beauty; it holds our attention even when we want to look away out of fear or disgust,” writes Vanity Fair’s Lawson. “As the scientists explore—and realize things are definitely not right—Garland introduces one arresting visual after another, gradually building something almost Lovecraftian in its fantastical horror and awe.”
The female cast kicks ass
Unlike so many let’s-go-get-the-aliens films from Hollywood’s planet-in-crisis past, Annihilation’s cast of badass gun-toting heroes is composed entirely of women. The soldier-scientists deployed into the unknown, Garland resisted the urge to over-focus on the fact of their gender at the expense of the larger storyline.
“Annihilation isn’t set up as any kind of ‘go girl,’ ‘strong female character’ message movie, but there is some feminist triumph in seeing this kind of story told from an entirely female perspective,” notes Vanity Fair’s Lawson. “Without a baseline assumption of canned male toughness and bravado, the characters in Annihilation are freer to have more a more interesting dynamic—their steeliness and sorrow, their fear and flintiness, intriguingly commingle and inform one another.”
The movie – which carries a 90 percent positive rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes as of Feb. 23 – opens in theaters today.