If Alex Garland's Ex Machina is at least in part about integrity of the mind—an examination of what consciousness means, how our memories define who we are, and the horror of facing deletion entirely at the whim of another—then Annihilation, Garland's tricky new sci-fi horror film, can possibly be understood as a counterpart focused on integrity of the body. What could be more terrifying than losing control of your body, of feeling yourself change from the inside out into something … new?
Johns Hopkins biologist and Army vet Lena (Natalie Portman) joins a quartet of women headed into Area X, a mysterious expanse surrounded by "the shimmer," a semi-permeable barrier that is nevertheless impervious to scans and seems to protect itself from exploration. No one who has gone in to see what is happening in Area X has come back—with one exception. Kane (Oscar Isaac), a Special Forces operative and Lena's husband, reappears at the couple's house one year after having left. He has no memories. His eyes are blank. And he's dying.
Lena accompanies psychologist Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), medic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), and anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) in order to find out what has happened to Kane. She hopes to save him, though she knows that's probably futile. Mostly, she wants to know what has been done to him—or if he's even the same person who left her a year ago.
Annihilation is at its most effective when it's dealing in rather straightforward body horror, that subgenre of fright flick concerned with the ways in which our physiques can be subjected to unwanted disfigurations and transformations. The most shocking imagery in the film comes from horrifying mutations and the creeping sensation that our bodies are not our own, that they can be manipulated by outside forces and can turn against us.
The terror of cancer—of unending and unstoppable replication and mutation, of the body betraying itself due to either internal failures or external pressures—is a recurring theme, and Garland demonstrates both the dread and wonder that can accompany out-of-control genetic disaster. Branches that flower into radically different blooms coexist alongside a half-bear, half-human monstrosity that moans with the voice of a fallen comrade. The imagery that Garland has conjured up here is often simultaneously beautiful and grotesque, as when the remains of a member from a previous expedition are discovered plastered to a wall merged with a lichen-like metastasized growth that blossoms out from the skeletal remains.
The general sense of creepiness is both aided and undermined by the soundtrack. The score is dominated by a sort of atonal pulse, a droning groan that gets deep into your belly and sits there, rumbling around. But there are also instrumental interludes, almost folksy in nature, that pull us back to more tranquil times in Lena and Kane's life. Perhaps these interruptions are needed to keep the dread from overwhelming, or to remind us of what Lena and her husband have lost. But they feel slightly out of place, as if they've been inserted from some other, slightly less-savage film.
That sense of doubling, that there are two movies playing out at once and struggling against each other for dominance, mirrors the film's toying with the instability of groupings: of cells, of lovers, of explorers, of ecosystems. To be totally honest, as a result of that disharmony, I'm not entirely sure that Annihilation works. But on a purely visual, and visceral, level, Annihilation is haunting and memorable. It's a film built for multiple viewings; rendering a judgment after just one feels inadequate.