'Annihilation' Has the Best Movie Monster I've Seen in Years
Spoiler alert: the scariest thing in the world is the unknowable.
The problem with monster movies is that you see way too much of the monster. There is nothing more terrifying than the unknown monster deep in the shadows, the one you can’t see and the one you don’t understand. Annihilation, the new movie from writer-director Alex Garland, understands this.
The new science fiction movie has a monster that’s only on screen for maybe 10 minutes and it’s the scariest monster I’ve seen in years, and I watch a lot of horror movies. Both Jaws and Alien work so well because the shark and the xenomorph are hidden throughout the film. When the audience doesn’t see the monster, the creature they imagine is almost always scarier than what a filmmaker can show them. In a way, Annihilation takes this proven method even further. In Jaws, when we finally see the shark, we know what it is: a big ass shark. But seeing Annihilation's monster doesn't pay off in the same way. It only deepens the mystery.
Annihilation tells the story of former US Army soldier and current Johns Hopkins biologist Lena and her mission into a strange anomaly called The Shimmer. At a lighthouse on the American coast (the movie isn't more specific than that, but the author of the book the movie is based on said he was inspired by Florida), a strange phenomenon is puzzling scientists. A sphere of strange influence emanates from the lighthouse and no one who goes in comes back out. Except Lena’s husband, who came back afflicted by a mysterious illness.
Lena and a team of four other women enter the shimmer to get answers and encounter a series of bizarre and beautiful anomalies. Spoiler warning: I’m about to discuss one of those anomalies. Halfway through the movie, Lena and company encounter a bear that attacks their party. At this point, Garland only shows us a passing glance at the creature. It’s all shadows and sounds with no clear vision.
Later, we learn the beast is a bear that can emulate the sounds of its previous victims to terrifying effect. The beast is like a Stephen Gammell painting come to life. It’s fur, in the light, is bleached white and the flesh from its face is melted away. A skull with empty sockets remains. It can’t see, but it can hear and smell. The thing stalks through the bedroom where Lena and her team are tied helpless to chairs, moving between them and screaming in the voice of their fallen friend, calling for help in a stolen voice.
Again, it’s a very small portion of the movie but the bear is so effective and scary because Garland used it sparingly. The audience never gets a great look at it and the noise it makes does a lot of the work. Most importantly, even when we do see it, we still don't understand what it is.
This is a movie about an alien—and I use that term loosely—presence on Earth. Most science fiction movies depict otherworldly entities in a way that the human mind can grasp. Star Trek and Star Wars, both of which I love , are full of aliens that walk on two legs and look roughly human.
Annihilation’s creatures are so otherworldly that it’s hard for the human mind to even comprehend them. The bear is a good example of this, but the movie takes the concept further. Lena and her fellow protagonists are investigating a phenomenon for which they are literally biologically unequipped to process. It’s such a scary and effective film because its horrors are unknowable.
Sharks are pretty scary, sure. I would rather not encounter a knife-wielding serial killer, of course. But the unknown, the things we can't imagine or comprehend even when we encounter them, that's truly horrifying. It’s rare for a mainstream movie to attempt to even convey that kind of cosmic terror and even more rare for a movie to pull it off.