Annihilation is the second big screen directorial endeavour from Alex Garland, who made a name for himself initially by writing The Beach, which was closely followed by The Tesseract. He then began working on a number of Hollywood scripts including 28 days later, Sunshine and a personal favourite of mine, Dredd. In 2015 he dipped his directorial toes into the film pool with the critically acclaimed sci-fi/thriller Ex Machina, and has followed the science fiction trend with an exciting female-led film, based on the book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer: Annihilation. As a fan of VanderMeer’s work, before watching the film, I had already read The Southern Reach Trilogy.
You’ll likely see the following words used to describe the film in other reviews: ‘Bold, Visually Stunning, Provocative, Pompous, Discomforting, Thought-provoking, Banal, Striking and Cerebral,’ and for the most part, all of these soundbites can be employed to depict this adaptation, mostly because the source material is so complex. Attempting to jam-pack all of the first novel’s intricate details into a ninety minute movie would be like trying to stuff your entire wardrobe into a dinky suitcase, but Gardner manages to do so expertly. If you’re into slow burner sci-fi films (like the most recent Blade Runner 2049) or a fan of Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker movies, then you’ll feel right at home with Annihilation. For others, the dense metaphors and highbrow concepts at play may put you off. I’m not saying that you have to be a mongoloid-looking Neanderthal, carrying your knuckles across the floor NOT to enjoy the film, but there seems to be a tightrope that Garland attempts to walk here, trying to appeal to audiences that want the mixture of frights, drama, sci-fi twirly whirly trippy cosmology and horrifying monster visuals.
It’s a difficult rope to walk, but Garland manages to encompass all of these complicated ingredients into the cauldron like a seasoned chef and offers a visual treat for the eyes, whilst also maintaining the best element of the science fiction genre: making the audience think. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that Paramount got the memo, as they clearly had no idea how to market Annihilation, barely promoting it, holding it from press until a few days before release, and selling it to Netflix for international markets. And that’s a crying shame, really, as the ensemble cast give an electrifying performance with an ambitious, daring film that people will be dissecting for years.
Natalie Portman plays soldier turned academic biologist Lena, (in the novel she’s a biologist, but the soldier part cuts out the training process from the novel and also streamlines some of the action sequences later) someone who seems detached from the world around her. We learn quite quickly from parcelled out information in the form of flashbacks and quickly edited scenes that her husband, Kane (played by Oscar Isaac) went AWOL a year ago on a mysterious mission. When he returns, he doesn’t quite seem the same man. Soon after his return, Kane becomes gravely ill after coughing up blood and is rushed to hospital, only for the ambulance to be intercepted by a shady Government agency led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The dour and obstinate Ventress brings her to a place known as The Southern Reach, a research facility investigating a meteor that crashed at a lighthouse and has been expanding for three years, enveloping the surrounding area in what can only be described as a massive domed plate of alien jelly. The Southern Reach have been investigating it and have found that it doesn’t permit radio or electronic signals inside, and no manned mission has ever produced a survivor – until Lena’s husband, Kane. The Southern Reach know that the alien mass will exponentially increase and expand until it consumes everything in sight, so their plan is to send an all-female team (No, not the new Ghostbusters) including Lena, Dr. Ventress, and three others—tough-talking, Vasquez-like Anya (Gina Rodriguez), intelligent and wary Josie (Tessa Thompson), and all-rounder Cass (Tuva Novotny) to venture inside The Shimmer and hopefully bring back some answers.
Fans of the books may be disappointed by little touches that have been amended (likely for pacing or for financial reasons) such as Dr. Ventress not using hypnotism upon her fellow scientists, Area X being referred to as The Shimmer (I quite liked the name of Area X…) and there’s now a new sub plot involving Portman’s character committing adultery to spice up the emotional scales, however Garland and Cinematographer Rob Hardy, who also shot Ex Machina, change the natural environment to make The Shimmer look like something quite familiar to our world, but also strange and unknown at the same time. The sound design is spectacular and also needs to be highlighted within Annihilation, especially one centrepiece scene involving a night attack that’s one of this year’s most disturbing things I’ve seen in terms of design and direction. Garland may have been inspired by John Carpenters The Thing, but that’s A-Okay in my book.
There’s quite a lot of metaphorical issues at play, too. One could argue that Area X/The Shimmer is a cancer – with the world acting as its body. At the start of the movie Lena is lecturing to students about ovarian cancer cells multiplying. We later learn that Dr. Ventress has cancer, and refers directly to the annihilation of the human body in the third act. You could even argue that Lena’s adultery could be the emotional cancer eating away at Kane and Lena’s marriage (possibly the catalyst for Kane’s character to go into The Shimmer in the first instance?) and there’s also subtle references to The Shimmer expanding and taking over hosts that venture within it, much in the way that cancer cells do (at the end, a physical alien form crushes against Portman’s character like it wants to meld with her). Another argument could be that Annihilation is a veiled version of the mythical story of Orpheus and Eurydice. In this story, Orpheus journeys to the underworld in an attempt to retrieve his wife, but I suspect you could liken any range of mythological stories to modern day films…Garland also plays with the audience, when Tessa Thompson’s character refers to light refracting in the shimmer, it could help explain an earlier scene where Portman and Isaac are holding hands through a refracted glass of water. There’s underlying tones of duality and corruption of the flesh at play, and Garland seems to relish meting out this information in a visually stunning way to the audience. I’m sure there’s many other thematic comparisons, noting philosophical discussions involving the semantics of suicide and self-destruction, parallels and metaphors running throughout, but it would take a second, third or even fourth view to look into it with more depth.
The third act trembles slightly under the strain of all the themes at play, however. The problem with films like Annihilation is that sometimes the journey is more engaging than the actual last stop; although the team are attempting to get answers from within The Shimmer, there’s an inherent feeling similar to when you enter a room and forgot why you came there in the first place. This could be deliberate (it’s noted throughout the narrative that the area has an impact on all team members, similar to dementia) –but there’s an impression that something gets lost along the way by the time you make it to the end reveal and ambiguity seems to shoulder barge its way through to the front of the line. You feel that the vagueness of answers being is merely a façade for the many loose threads that need to be plucked.
It won’t be for everyone, but Annihilation is a film that stands proud amongst classics like Stalker – taking risks within sci-fi conventions of old and moulding them to be presented to a new era; where other films would be afraid to.
Annihilation is now available on Netflix in the UK
Review by Anthony Self
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