One of the Best Cosmic Horror Movies Ever is About to Leave Its Streaming Home
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner, you ask? Oh, it’s on Netflix until the end of the month.
If you’re a creative who needs to grab some headlines, simply describe your latest project as Lovecraftian. Horror games rush to apply the term, film sites run articles like “20 of the Best Lovecraftian Horror Movies” with clockwork regularity… even James Wan recently said Aquaman 2 will feature “creepy, scary, Lovecraftian looking characters,” which should slot in nicely alongside the whimsical octopus drummer.
H.P. Lovecraft has had an outsized influence on pop culture in the decades since he was rescued from obscurity, but almost a century removed from his death, describing every single project ranging from blatant pastiche to subtle deconstruction is the cosmic horror equivalent of declaring, “Getting a lot of Boss Baby vibes from this.” And so while Annihilation frequently appears on those lists of Lovecraftian films, its perpetual presence is a bit of a simplification.
Alex Garland’s 2018 movie does owe a debt to Lovecraft — it feels like an adaptation of “The Colour Out of Space” a year before Nicolas Cage starred in an actual adaptation — but its source material is a 2014 Jeff VanderMeer novel. A landmark in New Weird, the genre that dragged Lovecraft and his pulp contemporaries into the 21st century, Annihilation is a loose adaptation, but one that captures the book’s strange, unsettling nature.
Soldier-turned-biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) finds her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) in her house, which comes as a shock considering he disappeared a year ago. Kane, still a soldier, vanished on a covert operation, but has returned with a bad case of amnesia and a propensity for coughing up blood. He soon slips into a coma, and he and Lena are whisked away to a secure facility where Lena learns the cause of his ailment: the Shimmer.
The byproduct of a meteor that slammed into a Florida lighthouse, the Shimmer is a rippling membrane of impossible colors perpetually expanding from its point of origin. Neither human nor drone has ever returned from within its borders and now, several years into its existence, its once leisurely growth is threatening to swallow entire cities. Desperate to cure Kane, Lena volunteers to join four other scientists on the latest and most urgent expedition.
Once inside, our heroes realize the Shimmer breaks the laws of their respective fields. Advanced electronics don’t work, time skips and dilates. Biology, in particular, has become tenuous; the team encounters an alligator with shark teeth and deer with cherry tree antlers, among other beautiful, disturbing, and completely impossible mutations. The Shimmer, they conclude, is a prism, endlessly refracting everything within it. Its effect on humans is best left for the first-time viewer to discover.
Those humans are haunted, as Cassie (Tuva Novotny) conveniently explains to Lena. Cassie lost a daughter to leukemia, Josie (Tessa Thompson) cuts herself, Anya (Gina Rodriguez) is a recovering alcoholic. Lena cheated on Oscar Isaac (the film’s least believable plot point) and fears the affair drove him to volunteer for his suicide mission. And then there’s team leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist who, in the movie’s most intense performance, is weighed down by all the men she’s sent to their deaths in the Shimmer, and determined to uncover its secrets before she succumbs to cancer.
The Shimmer is implicitly a cancer; endlessly growing beyond the point of usefulness, reshaping everything it touches just as the self-destructive tendencies of our heroes reshape them. In a lesser movie, this would be part of some nefarious alien scheme to conquer the planet. But the Shimmer is alien in the most literal, incomprehensible sense. Lena decides it doesn’t want anything, and may not even be aware of the concept of desire. Hence the Lovecraftian labeling; no matter how scary an invading alien army is, it can be fought. How do you fight meaninglessness? Not everyone comes up with a good answer.
Smarter dorks than us have argued about what defines New Weird, but the movement has a propensity for gnawing at the edges of genres and fitting them together in strange, uncompromising ways. It’s a fitting label for a blend of sci-fi and horror that resisted notes from a studio that saw Annihilation as too complicated and intellectual, and suggested a clearer ending and more sympathetic lead.
Skydance may have had a point; Annihilation had poor test screenings and struggled to recoup its budget, despite strong reviews (in a disappointing fallout to the studio drama, it was kicked straight to Netflix outside of North America and China). But it found a second life in streaming and physical media, and while that may be little solace to the studio that paid for it, it remains well worth your time. Drop its weightier elements and Annihilation is essentially a trippy slasher film; a tense standoff involving a mutated bear is one of the most unnerving scenes sci-fi horror has ever produced.
At a time when most blockbusters feel the need to spoon-feed their message to audiences, Annihilation’s strangeness — and its success in the home market — suggests there’s still a market for the weird. Maybe that market’s future lies in the indie space (The Color Out of Space’s budget was about 20% of Annihilation’s), or maybe we’ll only enjoy occasional indulgences of directors who have proven their mettle. Regardless, Annihilation is a reminder of how far sci-fi can be pushed by good source material, a committed team of creators, and an audience willing to buy in. For a movie about the disturbing impossibility of knowing the other, that’s not a bad result.