The 400-Word Review: Annihilation
By Sean Collier
February 26, 2018

Ladies night!

There are films that try to jump through a hoop and succeed. There are films that try to jump through a hoop and miss. There are films that try to jump through a flaming hoop.

Then there are films that try to jump through a flaming hoop while themselves on fire, with both self and hoop floating in an anti-gravity vortex inside of an active volcano while dragons made of enchanted quartz waltz in the background.

Annihilation is that last kind of film. (Not literally, although if any of that turned up in the sequel, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.)

A work of challenging, speculative science fiction, Annihilation is directed and adapted by Alex Garland, the writer/director of the widely lauded Ex-Machina (and the 28 Days Later script). It’s based on the first installment of Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach” series, although the liberties taken with the narrative suggests the film is best taken as a collaboration of ideas between Garland and VanderMeer.

A physical anomaly, visible as a wall of undulating light and dubbed The Shimmer, forms around a remote lighthouse and begins expanding. Teams of soldiers have been sent in; only one man, Kane (Oscar Isaac), has returned, making it back to the home he shares with Lena (Natalie Portman) before collapsing and being whisked to a government facility.

Lena wakes up there as well, being questioned by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ventress is about to lead another expedition, this time with a roster of scientists — Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson) and Cass (Tuva Novotny) — in lieu of soldiers. Keeping her connection to the prodigal fighter quiet, Lena opts to join the party in search of answers.

Things go awry in staggering and indefinable ways once the party crosses the threshold; the discoveries therein make up both the dramatic and thematic core of the film, so I won’t reveal them here. The question — or one of the questions, anyway — at hand: How can humanity deal with physical forces undreamed of in our philosophy, especially when those forces quickly turn nightmarish?

The powerful, intense cast makes up a great deal of Annihilation’s success, as does the beautiful and terrible imagery. A framing device doesn’t work as well as intended, but Garland’s film — and, I hope, the sequels to come — represent a daring step forward in mainstream science fiction.

My Rating: 9/10

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at