ANNIHILATION. Mysterious and engaging sci-fi thriller

If I were to try to find a common denominator in Alex Garland’s work, it would be pessimism.

Mikołaj Lewalski

17 February 2024

ANNIHILATION. Mysterious and engaging science fiction thriller

Already in his first screenplay, Garland paints a vision of an epidemic of a deadly frenzy virus that decimates the population of Great Britain, stripping the survivors of their humanity.

In Sunshine, he portrays humanity on the brink of destruction, focusing on the weakness of individuals under intense stress and prolonged isolation. Garland‘s unofficial directorial debut, Dredd, presents a bleak picture of a lawless future, with violence fought by a handful of righteous individuals. In Ex Machina, the director portrays humans as flawed beings, susceptible to demoralization and deceit. The protagonist of the film turns out to be a slave to his own feelings and the naivety that drowns out the voice of reason. His above-average intellect is insufficient to resist manipulation by artificial intelligence embodied in the form of a beautiful woman. In Annihilation, Garland takes it a step further, making the theme of self-destruction the central motif of the film. The entire science fiction thriller is primarily a tool for ingeniously constructed metaphors.

ANNIHILATION Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson Tuva Novotnyin

The titular annihilation on a basic level refers to the mysterious Area, which appeared inexplicably and gradually consumes an increasing area. It is unclear what happens within the Area, but only one person has returned from many organized military expeditions. The protagonist’s husband (Oscar Isaac and Natalie Portman) appears at home a year after his disappearance and seems not to fully recognize the place he is in. The man cannot provide any useful information and starts coughing up blood after a moment. After calling for help, the heroic couple is taken to a facility built near the Area. Another expedition is organized, this time scientific. The critical condition of the sick man forces the protagonist (a biologist with military training) to participate in the expedition, which may help understand the nature of this strange phenomenon and its impact on humans.

ANNIHILATION Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson Tuva Novotnyin

It quickly becomes clear that the desire to explore the Area is not solely out of compulsion – each of the women deciding to undertake this mission has her own emotional baggage, and their meeting cannot be considered coincidental. A deceased child, suicide attempts, alcoholism – this dangerous environment mysteriously attracts individuals with self-destructive tendencies. On the other hand, one of the heroines states at one point that everyone is somehow inclined towards their own destruction, even by torpedoing their own happiness. Garland does not spend much time on exposition; instead, he outlines the dominant characteristics of his characters and allows their actions to speak for themselves. Each of them has a different attitude towards life and the Area, which is reflected in the fate that befalls them.

ANNIHILATION Natalie Portman

This can be genuinely terrifying and reminds us that despite the presence of philosophical themes, Annihilation remains an effective thriller. The director skillfully builds tension and culminates it with images that linger with the viewer for a long time. This might not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen 28 Days Later or Sunshine, but such a creative approach to horror scenes deserves recognition. Garland does not operate with tired genre clichés and scares more effectively than many horror films. The viewer’s engagement is also due to the excellent actresses who create credible and well-developed characters based on sparingly described roles. Natalie Portman’s incredibly authentic portrayal perfectly illustrates the inner conflict of her character, and the rest of the cast bravely keeps pace with her. The personal demons and emotional struggles of the women risking their lives make us identify with at least some of them, and we watch with concern as the Area gradually consumes them.

ANNIHILATION Jennifer Jason Leigh

The essence of the mysterious phenomenon is something that the viewer tries to understand simultaneously with the heroines throughout the entire film. Where does this strange rainbow glow come from? What is the origin of the mutations in plants and animals taking truly bizarre forms? Why does the mind of each woman seem to undergo gradual degradation? These are just basic questions that can be answered over time.

ANNIHILATION Natalie Portman

The last act of Annihilation forces more serious reflections and more demanding attempts at interpretation. Many issues remain without clear explanations, and while this may leave a few feeling empty, others will be thrilled by such an approach. In a world where we usually get answers served on a platter, it’s nice to be motivated to do some independent searching. Especially since, unlike Ridley Scott, who presented a similar approach in Prometheus, Alex Garland seems to know the explanations to his mysteries. This is certainly a film that will gain with each subsequent viewing, during which the significance of many scenes (such as flashbacks involving the protagonist and another lecturer – a thread crucial to the motif of self-destruction) will become clearer.


The finale of Annihilation is often compared to the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey – this combination of enigmatic symbolism of events with hypnotic audio-visual presentation will surely be inscribed in the genre’s canon, much like the final sequence of Kubrick’s masterpiece. Perhaps it was a mistake to leave so many ambiguities unexplained, but this is an extremely subjective matter. Annihilation will be a magnificent work provoking numerous reflections for some and a chaotic film about nothing for others. However, fans of classical science fiction should feel pampered by both the presented themes and the fascinating vision of the Area. The director has created a reality intriguing in concept and captivating in imagery – it’s a great pity he did not have a larger budget to avoid a certain visual conventionality. Nevertheless, even with limited resources, Garland impresses with truly visionary staging. After the premiere of Annihilation, it becomes clear that a master of the genre is slowly emerging, one who will not let serious science fiction perish in the sea of blockbuster cash grabs.