2018 | rated R | starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Oscar Issac, Benedict Wong | directed by Alex Garland | 1hr 55mins |
Studio Pitch: Arrival from the director of Ex Machina. Ok, not really.
Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s book series, Annihilation starts Arrival-style with Natalie Portman and some flashbacks – whose reunion with her husband (Oscar Issac), a special ops soldier who has been missing for a year, is interrupted by a violent seizure and an armed SWAT team that swoops in and whisks her off to a secret facility. There she learns he was part of a mission to explore a massive clear shell, known as The Shimmer, that has been expanding from a crashed asteroid and threatens to slowly but surely swallow up everything on the planet.
The performances are muted (maybe too much) and the visuals are striking. The star of the film is director Alex Garland, whose serious approach to the science fiction is rare and welcome. Like his last film, Ex Machina, Annihilation eschews the more popular Star Wars fantasy view of sci fi film for a more somber affair. Like the best of the genre films, it uses the genre to talk about real world fears, of disease, of depression, of relationships that crumble. Like the best of the genre films it also rolls over into pure cinema, at times offering a purely visual experience open to interpretation, but doesn’t go full on 2001 into art house ambiguity. Garland still has a few crowd-pleasing bones in his body and Annihilation delivers real chills in the 2nd act and a satisfying thriller of a climax in the third.
Once the film’s all-female team of gun-totting scientists ventures into The Shimmer, including team leader Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Gina Rodriguez, Annihilation becomes a surreal version of the classic jungle adventure film, complete with river raft scene. They encounter one monstrous creature and horrific plant mutation after another and if the albino alligators, bears, worms and plants don’t get them the Simmer’s affect on their paranoia will. The Shimmer itself is beautiful and the film has a bright color pallet that Garland depicts like a venus fly-trap that lures in it’s victims. The creature designs are pure nightmare fuel and Garland’s chilling original score all work together to create a genuine atmosphere of dread. In it’s meatiest moments, Annihilation spikes with unnerving set pieces and unflinching gruesome violence. It’s a little bit monster movie and a little bit body horror in a sci-fi wrapper.
I’m not a fan of the Interrogation Wrap around as a storytelling devise. Garland frames the action around Portman’s character telling a hazmat suited government agent (Benedict Wong) about her time in The Shimmer. However, I get why Garland does this – he seems to be replacing the details that would have been narrated in the book with the interrogation, dropping bits of information about the characters that fleshes out the story without forcing the primary action to stop and shift into exposition mode. Each of the women in this team is broken in some way and the film teases those bits out cleverly.
It’s rare to see female characters as detached and emotionless as those here. Jennifer Jason Leigh in particular looks like she’s downed a bottle of Xanax and doesn’t want to be there. Like last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Annihilation may divide audiences with how unconcerned everyone in the film seems to be in the face of world-ending stakes. The reasons for these muted performances become clearer as the story progresses and it all fits Garland’s sobering defeatist theme.
Annihilation is great work top to bottom by an artist who has crafted another audience-challenging installment in the small library of new millennial adult science fiction films. It’s a full meal here, layered like an onion and a lot of fun to chew on and deconstruct. A must see, I’d even say it is more entertaining than Ex Machina. It’s the first great movie of this year, so before the onslaught of remakes and comic book movies comes down at least we have one.