The model of extra-terrestrial life is not foreign to science fiction films as stories like Interstellar, Alien and Arrival have all offered looks into how humanity would react if a lifeform far beyond our evolutionary scale made contact. With Alex Garland’s second directorial feature Annihilation, he cements his name in the ring of high-concept sci-fi with a film that features an incredible cast, opulent themes about humanity and set-pieces that will leave you on the edge of your seat. Garland made one of the most incredible directorial debuts in modern cinematic history in 2015 with the claustrophobic and thought-provoking Ex Machina. His follow-up is even more eccentric mind-bending and ferocious and is the much-needed hit Paramount Pictures has been searching for.
Annihilation, based on the first novel of the same name in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, follows Lena, a biologist who, as she is about to overcome the grief of losing her husband one year prior, is stunned to see him walking up her stairs and into her bedroom. While her husband Kane may be home, things aren’t as they seem with Kane beginning to cough up blood and become incredibly sick. This leads Lena to come into contact with an organization known as the Southern Reach. On the horizon, she sees what can be described as a rainbow coloured wall known as ‘The Shimmer.’ Through three years of investigation, no radio signals have returned, and no manned missions have produced a survivor … until Lena’s husband. The assumption is that something in there kills people or people go insane and murder each other. Lena, Dr. Ventress, and three others—Paramedic Anya, physicist Josie and surveyor Cass—will venture into The Shimmer, get to the lighthouse, and hopefully return with answers.
In what should come as no surprise to anyone, Annihilation boasts a fantastic ensemble cast led by a superb performance from Natalie Portman. As the centre of the story, Portman’s Lena is intelligent and strong but also deeply flawed and Portman delivers a convincing and heartfelt portrayal of the army operative turned biologist. Tessa Thompson, who received recent critical acclaim for her role in 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, continues to prove why she is one of the best actresses working today in her dynamic and complex performance as Josie the physicist. In a role that could have simply taken a back seat, Thompson elevates the unhinged and neurotic side of Josie as her mental state deteriorates while in The Shimmer. Similarly, Gina Rodriguez’s Anya, the paramedic, weakens mentally as well, albeit in a much more aggressive way. Rodriguez perfectly captures Anya’s tough nature while still showing signs of what humanity she has left inside her. Jennifer Jason Leigh, who has experienced a career revival as of late, shines in her role as the leader of the expedition, Dr. Ventress. In a commanding performance, Leigh is hard-edged but determined as she spends her days trying to crack the code that is ‘The Shimmer.’
It would seem that almost every film released these days is tasked with building a world inside of it. What I mean by this is, films such as a Marvel or DC feature always have the daunting task of expanding and/or building a world that looks bigger than what is shown within the film. Sometimes it works and other times it feels forced and unnecessary. With Annihilation, Garland beautifully constructs and alien world that is both stunning and mesmerising. Never stepping off of Earth, Garland meticulously designs a world beyond our own as The Shimmer is defined by its own rules that crafts life unlike anything ever seen before. From gorgeous yet terrifying plant life to mutated creatures, the visual effects and design that was put into The Shimmer is truly gorgeous.
With a massive amount of secrecy and vague-ness spoken about it throughout the film, The Shimmer is never clearly defined and its goals remain a mystery even during and after the expedition. That being said, Garland clearly intended for this to happen as it leaves room for viewers to discuss what themes they think are represented within this alien construction. At its core, Annihilation is not a story about a violent alien force that invades earth for the sake of invasion. It features themes relating to humanity’s own self destruction and how we can overcome theme. Cell’s divide yet they also repopulate while humans continue to age and eventually die. Each character in the film is plagued by their own self-destructive tendencies and Garland is not subtle when it comes to showcasing this. But within The Shimmer, their bodies are re-constructed in various ways on a spectrum going from least to most extreme. It is a narrative that is destined to promote countless discussions about how each sequence led to the next and Garland successfully directs a multifaceted balancing act that allows the audience to fully immerse themselves within the world of these characters and the one they are investigating.
As for negatives, the film is incredibly open-ended and that has the potential to turn viewers away. As I previously stated, much of the film is left to your own interpretation and leaves you with all kinds of questions that Garland evidently does not have answers to. Additionally, for fans looking for a true adaptation of the source material, this is not the film you were hoping for. Garland has already stated in various interviews that his work on the script was based off of ideas of an unpublished version of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, meaning that Garland merely took the main aspects of the novel and put his own spin on it. This is not a bad thing, but fans should know what they are walking into.
Garland has always made it a priority for his films to feature practical sets and visuals and Annihilation is no different with Rob Hardy, who was director of photography of Ex Machina, working cinematography here and his textured and layered visuals set the sophisticatedly tense mood for the film. Shot on location in Windsor Great Park in England, Hardy’s striking and vibrant cinematography is filled with a mix of various greens and rainbow colours that resemble a fruit rotting. The use of the natural world enhances the uneasiness and terrifying nature that surrounds The Shimmer.
Ex Machina composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow also reunite with Garland to craft an inspiring electronic score for Annihilation that will slowly but surely elevate your heart-rate. The echoing and rising nature will keep viewers disoriented and frightened with its ambient sounds filling the speakers in the theatre as you sit in your seat, growing tenser while watching both the sci-fi and horror sequences.
Annihilation is a film that deserves to be seen in theatres. It is a shame that international film-goers will see the film first on Netflix but that will not take away from the fact that Alex Garland’s second directorial effort is a film that does not get released often. A high-concept sci-fi horror that joins the likes of Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival, Annihilation creates a unique and visionary world that will leave viewers contemplating what they saw for days to come. Featuring phenomenal performances, visceral gene ecstasies and challenging themes, Annihilation is a journey that, while not easy to discuss, will linger in our thoughts and go down as one of the best sci-fi films in recent memory. For my American and Canadian readers, take advantage of this opportunity and see this film in cinemas.
Nick’s Rating – 9/10
Annihilation is in theatres everywhere now.
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