Alex Garland began in Hollywood as a sci-fi screenwriter with movies like 28 Days Later and Sunshine, ultimately making his way to sci-fi filmmaker with Ex Machina. His talent for painting bleak, futuristic landscapes is great, even if he isn't directing them.
Like a Black Mirror episode, his visions of where technology is headed or what lies beyond our planet are not altogether hopeful. Nothing's changed, it seems, with Garland's second directorial feature, Annihilation, based on the first book in Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy.
With Natalie Portman at its center, the sci-fi thriller centers around an otherworldy event that erects a mysterious haze called "the Shimmer," which begins to distort nature by mutating the DNA of organic life. Worse still, it's expanding and the government is worried about what will happen should it reach major urban areas. An all-female team descends into "Area X" that has swallowed up previous expeditions to try and find out what's causing the Shimmer and maybe even stop it.
What they find is beyond their wildest nightmares and the movie is being praised for Portman's performance, the dazzling effects, and its unnerving horror beats that seem to draw from the classics. Nevertheless, there are some missteps in all that ambition and beauty, both of which will leave you with a hazmat suit full of questions and few answers.
For the sake of context, the film is sitting well above 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes in the early-goings, so despite the film's faults, it's still pretty great.
Here's what critics are saying about Annihilation:
"Annihilation is a ferocious, feral, female-centric update of fearsome monster classics like The Thing and Alien ... Garland sets an elegantly eerie mood with the astutely judged help of cinematographer Rob Hardy's striking lateral tracks and mix of greens and colors resembling rotting fruit; physically, the film Annihilation most resembles is Walter Hill's visually lustrous 1981 action drama Southern Comfort. The rumbling, churning electronic score by Ben Salisbury and Portishead's Geoff Barrow, who previously collaborated on the score to Ex Machina, finds a path directly to the viewer's anxiety button and presses it incessantly." -Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
"Tonally there’s a lot here but it never feels overstuffed or incongruously meshed together. There are some gruesomely well-orchestrated scenes of body horror (one particular dissection is nightmarishly staged) and Garland’s knack for gonzo imagery ensures that so many scenes in the film will make a lasting impression. He’s ably assisted by some atmospheric sound design and an insidiously effective score from Ben Salisbury and Portishead instrumentalist/producer-turned-composer Geoff Barrow." -Benjamin Lee, The Guardian
"For those willing to put in the effort, Annihilation achieves that rare feat of great genre cinema, where we are not merely thrilled (the film is both intensely scary and unexpectedly beautiful in parts) but also feel as if our minds have been expanded along the way: It is, or at least could be interpreted as, an alien invasion story in which the extra-terrestrial entity has no form, but instead works with whatever it comes in contact with — like a virus, or cancer." -Peter Debruge, Variety.
"Garland's plot is relentless with its terror and deep immersion in a familiar world that's been tweaked into something else altogether. There's almost no levity, other than some happier times spent with Lena and Kane during the film's non-linear narrative. Things also get a little muddled heading into Annihilation's climax, but it's forgivable in a story so admirably confident in its outrageousness." -Brian Truitt, USA Today
"There is some very dazzling imagery throughout Annihilation —especially the fantastical, primordial Shimmer itself and some of the lifeforms they encounter there — but the visual effects are not uniformly great, especially during the final act. That trippy homestretch may end up being either a bridge too far for some viewers or the favorite, most challenging part of the movie for others." -Jim Vejvoda, IGN
"The film has one eye on the 'final girl' structure of horror films throughout its expedition, and the ending takes that phrase, turns it inside out and shatters it into a thousand refracted points of light. Like all things this cosmic, it will certainly be snickered about as 'trippy sh--.' But I suspect a sizable portion of the audience will see themselves there." -Emily Yoshida, Vulture
"As it does, Annihilation inevitably stumbles on some of the crasser aspects of its survival thriller roots, including the raving maniac who gives into her nerves and threatens to derail the whole ordeal. However, Garland never loses control of the genre’s boundaries, instead using them to stabilize the story before catapulting to more ambitious heights." -Eric Kohn, IndieWire
"Wrapped in a thriller package, these ambitions can sometimes compete and wobble, especially at the expense of its supporting cast, yet still the end result is something to be treasured: a genre movie that will provoke discussion and debate for a long time to come ... the Shimmer proves to be a generally confounding mystery, with airs of Kubrickian perplexity buried in its center, the movie has a much more fascinating and tangible question mark at its core: why would someone want to walk into this?" -David Crow, Den of Geek
"Annihilation does become a kind of ethereal take on a 'and then there were none' monster movie. The tension is consistent and two-fold. We are both fearful for our heroes of what weird/disturbing image we might encounter. No spoilers, but the movie absolutely earns its R-rating with at least one horrific “cover your eyes” moment of man-on-man grisly violence. The dialogue is rooted in character development and scientific chit-chat, and all our leads get plenty of time to make an impression. Oh, and the film’s climax is a visual and metaphorical wonder that will inspire plenty of 'What does it all mean?!' blog posts." -Scott Mendelson, Forbes
"One of the greatest selling points of this movie all around are the performances. Portman does a sublime job as the soldier-scientist archetype, the curious sort of person looking for answers that’s also totally capable of gunning down a giant mutated croc as needed. But she’s also deeply damaged, hurt, and looking for meaning. She thinks she can find it by throwing herself into what everyone considers a suicide mission." -Corey Planet, Inverse
Annihilation opens in theaters Friday.