The following is a review of ANNIHILATION — Directed by Alex Garland.
There is this really sad quote about daring cinema that I once found as I was searching the Web for some interesting thoughts on the film industry. Actor and filmmaker Sean Penn reportedly once said that “if you put three thoughts into a movie, you’ve broken the law and no one will come [see it].” It is a quote that I’ve used before to describe cerebral cinema that was rejected by audiences. But I think the quote’s best companion piece is Alex Garland’s ANNIHILATION, a smart science-fiction film that was literally cast aside by a major studio because the film ‘broke that law.’
Although ANNIHILATION was released in cinemas in the United States a couple of weeks ago, a financier at Paramount Pictures was concerned that the film was too complex and too ‘intellectual,’ therefore the studio decided to sell the international rights to the streaming service Netflix. That meant that a science-fiction film with an all-female cast, intelligent themes, and a visually interesting appearance was unavailable to watch in cinemas outside of the United States.
On the one hand, that is a real shame seeing as most people won’t have the chance to see this visual feast on a large screen. However, every cloud has a silver lining, the international Netflix release also allows for an easy way to rewatch the film multiple times, a way to freeze frames, and it thus allows for quick and instant analysis from the comfort of your own home, which is pretty perfect for a thought-provoking science-fiction film with a concept as interesting as what Alex Garland has dealt with here.
Alex Garland’s ANNIHILATION is an adaptation of the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach series of novels. The film follows Lena (played by Natalie Portman), an Army veteran and biologist, who has not seen her husband, Kane (played by Oscar Isaac), who is an active Special Forces soldier, in close to a year. Lena half-expected that he was killed in action, as she has been unable to find out anything about the mission since he left abruptly one morning about a year ago.
So when a clearly disorientated Kane returns home to her as she is painting their bedroom, she naturally begins to cry and runs into his arms. But something isn’t right. Not only is Kane not interested in telling his wife anything about the mission, he doesn’t seem able to, and he doesn’t seem to think it matters at all. Her interrogation of him ends fairly quickly, however, as Kane starts to cough up blood and becomes visibly ill. As they rush to the hospital, their ambulance is stopped by government vehicles, and Lena is incapacitated.
Later, Lena wakes up in a government facility wherein she is met by Dr. Ventress (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist, who tells her that Kane, who is now in a coma, had been on an expedition inside the Shimmer — an electromagnetic field that is growing in size and is spreading. This huge electromagnetic field looks like it is covered in a huge soap bubble — meaning that rainbow colors dominate both the outside of the Shimmer and the light inside of it. Kane is the only survivor of multiple expeditions inside the Shimmer. They, quite frankly, don’t know what is out there, but they do know that if it keeps spreading, then it will cover entire states sooner rather than later.
Lena chooses to join Dr. Ventress in the latest research expedition team — an all-female scientist team — which also consists of Josie Radeck (played by Tessa Thompson), a physicist; Cass Shepard (played by Tuva Novotny), an anthropologist; and Anya Thorensen (played by Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic. When they enter into the Shimmer, they encounter a gorgeous area that has been overtaken entirely by nature, but, a couple of days into the expedition, they figure out that they have no recollection of how they got to their campsite. Once they start to figure out what kinds of mutations happen inside the Shimmer, a theory that Thorensen once kicked about looks more and more likely. Thorensen speculates that the expedition teams were either killed by something, or were driven insane and killed each other.
And I think that is the right place to stop the plot description. What exactly happens inside the Shimmer will have to be revealed to you once you watch the film, even though the remainder of this review will absolutely discuss the themes that are brought up by the environment, the characters, and the twists and turns. I will try to stay as far away from spoilers as possible, but you should absolutely proceed with caution.
There really aren’t many genre films as interesting as cerebral science-fiction films, and it is a genre that has fostered plenty of great writers, as well as great think-pieces and analyses. This last decade has been particularly great for science-fiction films, and the decade has also kickstarted the directorial career of someone who really understands how thought-provoking narratives can be painted on a big screen. Writer-director Alex Garland received critical acclaim for his directorial debut EX_MACHINA, and ANNIHILATION is yet another fascinating experiment inside the thrilling genre of science-fiction.
Although there are clear references to other great influential science-fiction films like Alien, The Thing, and so on and so forth, it still feels rather unique, and it is a fitting companion piece to another film about a female scientist discovering new things about herself as well as the environment around her — Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, a true science-fiction masterpiece.
But where the plot of Arrival was still steeped in deep affection and emotion, ANNIHILATION deals with affection, but it is ultimately about something both destructive and transformative. It is a film that deals with mutation and self-destruction. If Arrival was the cerebral science-fiction thriller for linguists, then ANNIHILATION is the cerebral science-fiction thriller for biologists — those who know only too well the imperfections of our genetic makeup.
Similarly, there is a key difference in the visuals and the unraveling of the narrative. Arrival has these very cold visuals with the orange of protective suits being the outstanding color in many shots, and the story is told in a slow unveiling of puzzle-pieces that we don’t know are there until the end of the film. ANNIHILATION, in my opinion, contains much warmer colors, with the pale white symbolizing deterioration in an environment that has been taken over by nature. Green is the prevailing color, but all the colors of the rainbow stand out in the environment. Furthermore, ANNIHILATION‘s narrative is told via one long flashback, as well as through brief scenes with an inquisitive interrogator dressed in a protective suit. However, neither film is easy to deal with for those not fond of this type of science-fiction. Arrival is patient and considered, whereas ANNIHILATION is wild, colorful, and full of life even in its most horrific moments.
Did you catch that? That’s right, there are clear nods to the horror genre. ANNIHILATION has two long, deliberately paced, and uncomfortably tense scenes where something unnatural dominates the screen and, in one of the scenes, even the sound design. ANNIHILATION is a scary science-fiction film. There are creatures that vary in beauty with some being gorgeous and seemingly docile, and others that are wild, destructive, pale, and frightening. This film contains elements from body horror that will most certainly keep some people up at night.
One creature and its screams — you’ll know the one when you hear the sound it makes — is, essentially, pure nightmare-fuel. The latter of the aforementioned two tension-filled scenes appears in the final act of the film and it involves a dance, a mirroring, and a lighthouse. This scene, at one point, made me terribly claustrophobic. In general, this is one of the more disturbing science-fiction films in recent years.
At the time of writing, I have seen the film three times, and every time the final shot ends I find myself out of breath. The first time that I watched the film, I was left speechless. ANNIHILATION is a mind-bending piece of thought-provoking science-fiction entertainment that includes gorgeous visuals depicting the wilderness having overtaken humanity, as well as this much more colorfully designed fungus on the environment inside the Shimmer.
For science-fiction aficionados, ANNIHILATION will be a truly spellbinding film to watch. I think that it is a smartly told story of change and mutation that includes these very clear motifs in the production design that is meant to reference life, birth, and death. I read the film as being about the different ways one can respond to change — as expressed via mutation — in times of depression and self-destruction. One character accepts it, one character seeks it, one character is overtaken by it, and another struggles with it. Going a step further, the film notes how someone could perceive creation and evolution as destruction.
Although I am definitely singing the film’s praises, I don’t think ANNIHILATION is entirely flawless. I think there is one piece of expositional dialogue that tries to rush through the central characters’ backgrounds in a slightly unsatisfying way. I think the framing device of the narrative — specifically some of the answers given in the first scene of the interrogation — weakens the film somewhat due to the fact that we already know who doesn’t make it out alive. Also, the subplot regarding David Gyasi’s character didn’t quite work for me.
That isn’t to say that Gyasi is bad in the film. I don’t think any of the performances here are bad. There might be an issue with Oscar Isaac’s accentwork in one scene, but that’s the only thing that bugged me about the acting. The five central women are all great. Natalie Portman is actually outstanding, and I think she gets a lot out of this film. It was a really nice surprise to see Tuva Novotny in this kind of film with this stellar cast. I like Novotny a lot, and I think she is one of the more memorable characters in the film, even though she is an unknown actress to North American audiences.
Taking everything into account, I believe Alex Garland’s sophomore directorial effort ANNIHILATION is a remarkable thought-provoking science-fiction film that depicts a journey that is both inward and outward — a journey into the unknown, the incomprehensible, and confusing influence of depression and destruction. Creating two excellent intellectual science-fiction films is a major accomplishment, but it is even more impressive when you recognize that these are his two first feature films as a director. Alex Garland is starting to look like a true master of the genre.
9 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen