“All women,” notes Lena, the lead character of Alex Garland’s new science-fiction film Annihilation, immediately before embarking on a dark and mysterious mission. Lena, played by the fiercely committed Natalie Portman, is one of five women heading into a strange disaster zone in the swamps of Florida dubbed “The Shimmer” in the hopes of understanding how it descended and is expanding upon the land. Annihilation, then, is a film largely about that quintet of women and how they struggle to cope with the mutations that they encounter within the Shimmer; it’s a haunting and unnerving journey into the unknown, emphasizing feminine strength throughout.
Over three years, Lena learns, there have been many missions into the Shimmer, but only one man has ever returned: her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who returned to her recently in a much different and heavily incapacitated state. Both because of her curiosity and to hopefully save Kane and their previously floundering marriage, Lena joins four other women—Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and Cass (Tuva Novotny) — as they attempt to understand the origins of what caused the Shimmer in the hopes of controlling it before it continues expanding into populated cities.
Annihilation, outside of that line of dialogue from Portman’s Lena, rarely makes an emphatic note of reminding its audience that the main characters are mostly women. (Isaac and Benedict Wong are the only two men in the film who have substantial dialogue or screen time.) Alex Garland, adapting the Jeff VanderMeer novel of the same name, has leaned further away from the more direct male-female dynamic that made up his previous film, Ex Machina. Though Annihilation is as much about Lena’s once-loving and now somewhat hollow marriage as it is about the Shimmer, there are few moments among the women on this mission that are meant to suggest the impact of men in their lives.
Arguably, it’s this nonchalance (either built into the source material or a choice on Garland’s part in writing the adapted screenplay) that works in Annihilation’s favor. Though the images of these women, all toting guns and prepared to take out any mysterious alien creatures that may be waiting for them, are striking, the film does not try to linger on them deliberately. There is, in essence, no attempt in Annihilation to metaphorically nudge the audience to remember how this story is female-driven; it just is female-driven.
What’s more, the female characters in Annihilation all seem fairly driven and active; their choices are their own, not made because of the men in or out of their lives. Even in the flashbacks to Lena’s life before entering the Shimmer, we see her taking more action than being passively led by either her husband, or her colleague at Johns Hopkins University with whom she indulges in a brief affair. (She leads that affair, both in its beginning and in its swift conclusion.) The further that Lena and the other women progress into the Shimmer, the more they’re confronted not by direct hallmarks of their dark pasts — Cass points out to Lena in a private conversation that each of them is driven into this suicidal mission by personal loss — but by the often horrific mutations that have been spawned inside the disaster zone.
One of the great strengths of Annihilation goes beyond the source material or even the striking, if frequently disturbing, visuals. So much of its emotional core is a burden borne by the lead actresses, each of whom brings a different and distinctive personality to their work. Portman is not only committed here, but as tough as an ex-soldier like Lena would be. Rodriguez and Thompson, perhaps, are the most remarkable to watch, playing radically different characters from Jane Villaneuva on Jane the Virgin and Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, respectively. Rodriguez, especially, gets to display a sharpness that’s intentionally not present in her work on the CW dramedy; just as that show proved her winning charm, her work in Annihilation suggests a vast range that other filmmakers need to tap into.
The women of Annihilation are a large part of why the film works. Though much of the second half of the film is driven by some genuinely surprising and unique special-effects creations, ranging from the disgusting to the gorgeous, it still relies on its extremely talented ensemble to make the fantastical feel real. Natalie Portman is the name above the movie’s poster, and brings her requisite emotional intensity to the lead role, but she’s equally matched by Rodriguez, Thompson, Leigh, and Novotny. A few years after Ex Machina, which relied on the depiction of men subjugating women in even a futuristic, technological fashion, writer-director Garland has adapted a story almost entirely about women fighting for the future of the planet, if not their own lives, and done so with aplomb precisely by not emphasizing the gender parity.