In a key scene early on in Annihilation, Lena (Natalie Portman) — a biologist and Army veteran about to enlist in a mission to investigate an unexplained but growing phenomenon in the middle of Florida swampland — looks at the women who will be joining her and asks the question that's on the audience's mind: "All women?"
"All scientists," one of them replies.
Having five female leads would be enough to make Alex Garland's mesmerising work of science fiction, based on the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, stand out in a genre that has traditionally been, and mostly remains, white male-centric. But part of what makes Annihilation truly remarkable is that while it acknowledges that groundbreaking aspect, it also allows its characters to transcend their gender, avoiding turning them into token pawns in the fight for broader female representation onscreen. But that in itself is a feminist act: Women — and particularly women of color — starring in a complex, big-budget studio sci-fi film that isn't just about them being women, but rather, encourages them to be more.
And the other part? Well, that's down to Annihilation's masterful questioning of the human condition, and its eternal cycle of destruction and reinvention. And yes, that's just as intense as it sounds.
Don't be alarmed if you leave the cinema feeling a little dazed. This is not a film that can casually be consumed between snack breaks on your computer. (A fact which makes Paramount's decision to sell its international distribution rights to Netflix all the more disheartening.) It's a work that demands thought and time to process the sensory overload of sound and colour, courtesy of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury's score, and Rob Hardy's cinematography. But that's also part of what makes it so compelling: much like Arrival, Denis Villeneuve's beautiful sci-fi starring Amy Adams, this is a movie to be experienced just as much as watched. (The parallels between the two movies are unavoidable. Both are female-led, modern takes on the encounter genre, swathed in unearthly sound and visual beauty.)
When we first meet Lena, she's being interrogated by a man in a haz-mat suit about her suspicious survival without food rations or drinking water for over four months in a uninhabited zone known as "Area X." The rest of her unit is still missing. (Did she kill them? Did they kill each other? Is there something scarier hiding in there? All underlying questions.)
As the narrative weaves back and forth through time, we learn that Lena's husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), disappeared into a force field-like dome rapidly growing across Area X, known as The Shimmer, for over a year, only to emerge disoriented and without any memory of how he got back. He's also inexplicably ill, which explains Lena's desire to seek answers out for herself.
Joining Lena on this expedition to seek out the source of The Shimmer are Dr. Ventress, a curt psychologist whose intensity suggests she's hiding something (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya, an impetuous and fierce paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), Josie, a whip-smart and sensitive physicist (Tessa Thompson), and Cass, a friendly yet reserved anthropologist (Tuva Novotny). It's a testament to each actress that each character, some of whom only get fairly limited screen time, feels distinct and whole. Portman smoothly conveys both delicate intellect and physical strength, a tough combination to pull off, while Jason Leigh is terrifyingly serene. Rodriguez, in stark contrast to her Jane the Virgin roots, was born to play an action heroine. But their confident exteriors mask complicated inner angst; this is considered a suicide mission — no one, save for Kane, has ever returned — and these women each have their own reasons for being there.
Inside The Shimmer, so designated because of the iridescent rainbow shades that make up its surface, casting a unicorn highlighter glow over everything within, Garland has created a world of soft-lit beauty: think of a rainforest paradise, marred only by a whiff of decay. Colourful vines snake up abandoned trailers creating artful patterns that make you smile, until you realise they're basically tumours, a distortion of genetic material. (It's no coincidence that one scene shows Lena, an expert on "the genetically programmed life cycle of a cell," reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot's exploration of the woman behind the cervical cancer cells known as HeLa, whose endless multiplication outside the body have made innumerable contributions to science over the last half century.)
As the group ventures further, losing track of time and space (compasses don't work in The Shimmer, yet another hint at some alien activity at play), they quickly realise that beauty conceals much darker realities. The same unexplained factors that are causing deer to grow pink flowers on their antlers (one of the most gorgeous shots in a movie filled with them), are also causing bears to mutate into something resembling a demon from the darkest pit of your nightmares.
But inside this other-wordly biodome, the distortions aren't limited to plants and animals. This is where the movie transitions from pure science-fiction into horror. If Garland's first feature, 2015's Ex Machina, suggested the eventual subjugation of humans to their more intelligent, machine creations, Annihilation takes it one step further. As the title suggests, this is a film that explores the possibility of human erasure — what happens when our own bodies, our own cells, our own minds, turn against us, from the inside out.
There's no finite answer, and the film leaves several options hanging in the air. But the journey is nothing short of transcendent.