Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: Annihilation

Sometimes, sci fi is about telling a story. Sometimes it’s about deepening a character. Sometimes it’s about scaling a broad philosophy down to human specificity; others magnifying tiny emotions into earth-shattering cataclysms. But sometimes it’s not directly about anything, so much as artfully adjacent; more symphony than narrative. Tarkovsky comes to mind. So does Shane Carruth. There’s a craft to their construction and ideas at their core — whispers of philosophy, recurring symbols — but they refuse to be obviously didactic. Nail them to a concrete something (a parable, a mystery, a metaphor for X) and they’ll inevitably wriggle free. How do you dissect something so slippery?

Annihilation (4/5) is no Stalker, but it shares that infuriating slipperiness; the sort that makes head-on writing feel an awful lot like missing the point. So I’ll keep this one short and cryptic. If Ex Machine was a hushed morality play, Alex Garland’s follow-up is an orchestral scream; signifying who-cares-what with deafening aplomb. It’s visually jaw-dropping, with swirling pastels and jarring swells of nature conjuring a sort of hazy, Fauvist dreamscape. It’s disorienting, and hypnotic, and refuses to give you a foothold. It builds a particular mixture of dread and curiosity that I’m not sure I’ve seen before: Lewis Carroll-esque, you’re always a little bit disturbed and a little bit enchanted. Like Arrival, it’s taking human emotions to literal extremes; but unlike grief, this one is almost impossible to define. Something about the tendency to self destruct; the feeling that things which ought to complement (lovers, goals) might collide and negate. Also, the quantum flipside: that opposing forces (gnawing urges, competing impulses) might arise from a vacuum. No cause, no reason, just entropy in an unplanned world. It’s about not mattering to the universe, and reveling in the smallness.

This isn’t a perfect film. The third act, in particular, makes the classic mistake of staring a bit too directly at a mystery it has no intention of revealing; it felt too well-lit, too obvious. But on a whole, I found this to be an incredible, singular movie-going experience. See it in theatres on the biggest screen you can.

Chris and I argue about Annihilation in separate, lengthy spoiler-free and spoilery sections. We also revisit last week’s Black Panther review, discussing representation and the knee-jerk, white-lens impulse to trivialize / nitpick. Episode 491 is live at:

See my review on Letterboxd