2018, R, 115 mins.
Natalie Portman as Lena / Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr. Ventress / Gina Rodriguez as Anya Thorensen / Tessa Thompson as Josie Radek / Oscar Isaac as Kane / Tuva Novotny as Cass Sheppard / Bern Collaco as Scientist
Written and directed by Alex Garland, based on the book by Jeff VanderMeer
In a relative age when compelling speculative science fiction is an increasingly rare commodity at the cinemas, I wholeheartedly welcome in open arms genre efforts like ANNIHILATION, which is another thematically strong and viscerally immersive sci-fi film from writer/director Alex Garland, whom previously made a large splash with his superlative Oscar winning directorial debut in EX MACHINA and, before that, made a niche for himself penning SUNSHINE and 28 DAYS LATER.
Much like EX
MACHINA, ANNIHILATION once again demonstrates a willingness by its UK
director to take calculated risks with the material and going down some
daring narrative paths that poses many tantalizing questions without
directly answering them. That,
and the film is grotesquely frightening at times while engaging us with
its thoughtful storytelling. It
may not stick to a climatic landing as well as I would have liked, but ANNIHILATION
makes up for its creative messiness at times with its boundless ambition.
There have been
innumerable alien invasion movies before - or movies with some sort of
variation of that genre - but perhaps none as chillingly unique as of late
as this one. Garland's film
opens in the present and introduces us to Lena (Natalie Portman), who
appears shaken and puzzled while she's being detained and questioned by a
man wearing a decontamination suit. He calmly asks her a series of specific questions about what
she's gone through, only to be stymied with her apparent short term memory
loss and inability to recall basic details.
She provides some very vague recollections here and there, but is
frustratingly non-specific. From
here Garland flashes back to the past and then back to the present, with
the cycle repeating itself to create some semblance of a whole as to what has
happened to this troubled woman. Normally,
I have no issue with using this type of non-linear storytelling structure,
but here it disappointingly doesn't flow through the story with as much
fluidity as I would have wanted, not to mention that it subverts
suspense later on when Lena - in the present - does recall the fate of
many of her colleagues before we are shown it in flashbacks, which seems
In an early
flashback we learn that Lena was ex-military, now serving as a biology professor that's trying to get on with her life after the tragic
disappearance of her presumed dead husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac).
Then one day...Kane returns home, showing the same
suspicious memory lapses that Lena displayed in the opening scene of the
film in the present. Something
just seems really, really off about him, but she does discover that he was
part of a top secret government task force that was assembled to enter a
mysterious area called "The Shimmer," which gets its name for
the nebulous-like cloudy bubble that cascades over a forested area in
Florida. The Shimmer
originated in space in the form of a meteor, which crashed into a light
house and then began spreading like a virus.
Everyone that the government has sent into The Shimmer to
investigate has never returned, with the one exception being Kane.
Seeing as Kane
grows sicker by the day in his post-Shimmer expedition reappearance and eventually
becomes unable to provide tangible information, this springs Lena into action
with another group of intrepid explorers that wish to venture into The
Shimmer and - fingers crossed - make it back out alive.
The five woman team includes - on top of Lena - a psychiatric
doctor, Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh); a paramedic, Anya (Gina
Rodriguez); an anthropologist, Cass (Tuva Novotny); and a physicist (Tessa
Thompson). As the brave squad
enters into The Shimmer and attempt to unlock all of its beguiling
mysteries and halt its expansion on the rest of the world they soon learn
what happened to Kane and his own squad in the form of a left behind video
diary, which sends them into a frightened panic and the realization that
those in The Shimmer can be affected in deeply disturbing ways both
physically and mentally. Survival
- and not scientific exploration - soon becomes the predominating focus of
Lena and her team.
itself becomes an enthralling environmental character in ANNIHILATION,
which is stunningly realized by Garland and his visual effects team as a
dense rainforest that's peppered by strange and exotically colorful plant
and animal mutations. Crocodiles,
for example, seem to perplexingly have the same teeth structure as sharks,
which hints that The Shimmer has caused some impossible breeding of incongruent animal life. There's
also a bear-like creature that - even more terrifyingly - screams in an
eerily human-like manner. Even
though that, yes, Lena and her team are indeed traveling through a section
of Florida, the terrain nevertheless looks and feels positively extraterrestrial
and is laced with a lingering sense of danger and dread that more
dangerous biological oddities await them as they journey deeper into it. On a level of fostering an undulating sense of unease and
tension, Garland crafts these sequences for maximum chill factor and are
among the best scenes in the whole movie.
ANNIHILATION is a rare alien movie that doesn't really have a main
alien protagonist, per se, attacking the heroes; nature itself here
becomes the real villain.
its share of grisly violence and action thrown in for good measure, which
usually takes the form of Lena's squad desperately trying to defend
themselves against biologically unexplained phenomena and abominations
that are the stuff of nightmares. The
fear of the unknown is what makes ANNIHILATION so ultimately gripping
throughout its opening two thirds, and on top of employing some
thanklessly seamless visual effects work the sound design here is quite
masterfully rendered, which not only helps cement viewers in The Shimmer
with the frazzled characters, but it also helps keeping us off balance and
disoriented throughout. In
the great tradition of survival horror/sci-fi, ANNIHILATION forces
audience members to take a journey with its characters into places you
don't want to go, and Garland relishes at all of the stomach churning
possibilities contained within.
This is also a
decidedly rare sci-fi film that's headlined by a predominantly female
cast, which is something to be embraced and celebrated, to be sure.
I only wished that some of the team members that made up Lena's
squad came off more as fully fleshed out characters and not broadly delineated
character types. Most of the
women here are only sketchily developed and, more or less, are kind of
props being served up to the natural slaughter that The Shimmer threatens
them with. That's not to say
that the performances aren't up to snuff, because they are.
In particular, I liked Rodriguez's credibly fidgety performance as
her increasingly agitated and frightened anthropologist, but ANNIHILATION,
to be fare, is Portman's film through and through.
Once you're willing to overcome the fact that the pint-sized Lena
doesn't specifically come off as an authentic former soldier (Portman
doesn't wholly pull off the raw physicality and mental toughness required
for that), she nevertheless becomes a rock solid audience conduit into the
unrelenting strangeness that surrounds her.
You can sense Lena's growing trepidation as the film progresses as
we witness her teeth clenched efforts to simply stay alive
and get to ground zero of this alien occurrence.
This takes me to
the climax of ANNIHILATION, which is, paradoxically enough, spectacularly
rendered and feverishly disorienting while, at the same time, not quite working and building towards the type of truly powerful payoff
that the narrative deserved. Garland, to
his credit, doesn't go for the obligatory standoff between hero and
extraterrestrial villain here, instead opting for a head trippy climax
that commendably doesn't wrap everything up in a neat and tidy bow.
It's great that ANNIHILATION defies conventional genre troupes and
descriptions in the manner that it develops and unravels, and Garland's
film is unquestionably eye-opening and visually dazzling.
It also intriguingly explores ageless sci-fi themes of
identity, self-destruction, and the fragility of the human condition when
placed in pressure cooker situations involving things that go beyond our understanding. I think the
fractured narrative mosaic of the story hurts its payoffs at times, and,
on the whole, ANNIHILATION doesn't quite simmer with as much intimacy and
intrigue as EX MACHINA (I preferred its insular approach much more).
This is a flawed sophomore effort from Garland, but it remains a sci-fi thriller
of uncommon intelligence
and challenging ideas, which is certainly in short supply for the genre