Whether or not a copy of the original novel Annihilation sits on your bookshelf, you'll come out of the movie adaptation with questions. Questions about the strange, alien ecosystem that is Area X, about the entity that created it, and on the films ambiguous ending. Director Alex Garland knows his way around a science fiction plot, but Annihilation is his most ambitious yet precisely because of what it leaves out.
The synopsis is deceptively simple at first. After a biologist's husband returns home from a secret mission, she (played by a brilliantly tough but brittle Natalie Portman) ends up volunteering to follow in his footsteps to investigate the mysterious "Area X" with a band of kickass women. Area X is affected by a strange miasma called the Shimmer, an unexplained force that affects and adapts the ecosystem within it. But what's causing it? What exactly did it do to the expeditions that had tried to explore it before? What does it want?
From there the story bends and warps, the team stops trusting time or each other, and the world inside Area X is a heady combination of beautiful - flowers blooming and growing in strange shapes - and violent, like a flesh hungry alligator or a nightmarish bear thing. Garland makes you chase after the women wanting explanations, but when they do come they're just crumbs that leave you hungry for more.
Sure, it can be hard getting crumbs when you're used to being served the whole cake, with a step by step guide to well-worn plot iced on top in large icing letters, but it's humbling to go into a strange world and discover it along with the characters, to form your own theories, watch them get smashed apart by a new surprise, and have to start over. While it tells a very different story, Annihilation left me with the same feelings as Under the Skin, another science fiction story with striking visuals. Both took beloved novels and used them as inspiration, rather than paint by numbers, to build their own haunting worlds.
For me, the uncertainty didn't do anything to lessen the emotional impact. One scene with the aforementioned bear will stalk the dark corners of mind every time I turn out the lights. Another, with Tessa Thompson (now firmly on my list of people who make any movie they star in a must-see) and her character Josie Radek, managed to be subtle and stealthily heartbreaking all at once. You'll never look at the Chelsea Flower Show the same way again.
The real deal breaker for most people will be the ending, the final scene comes at you in a wave of crazy that leaves you disorientated and a little unsure of how to interpret it. Here's the secret, it doesn't matter. The pay off isn't a final answer you can sum up in the length of a tweet, it's the ride that you've been on, the story you build for the characters after the credits have rolled.