Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac
Running time: 115 minutes
When her husband Kane (Isaac) inexplicably returns home with little memory after being presumed dead for a year, soldier-turned-biologist Lena (Portman) is momentarily handed her life back. That is until Kane suddenly falls ill and the pair are forcibly transported to a remote quarantine station known as Area X. There, Lena learns of the phenomenon known as “the Shimmer”: an area of coastal forest encased in a mysterious glimmer from which nothing ever returns. Along with a team of fellow scientists, headed up by Dr. Ventress (Leigh), Lena enters the Shimmer in search of answers.
With Annihilation, I did something I’ve never done before. I watched it, and then when it finished, I immediately watched it again. Such is the wonder of Alex Garland’s latest – the notoriously difficult second outing as writer/director – that even two viewings won’t be enough to fully contemplate what is being laid out before our very eyes.
The film deemed “too intellectual” by the major studios after test-screenings last year; Annihilation’s road to release has been a bumpy and well-documented one. Because of its perceived strangeness, Paramount were reluctant to take a punt with a theatrical release; but, despite such pressures, Garland remained firm to his vision – a commendable defiance that is most certainly to Netflix’s gain.
And, let’s face it, they really needed it. After a recent spout of less-than-impressive original releases – with the exception of Dee Rees’ Mudbound – many would’ve probably been cursing the site of their ‘Recently Added’ section when yet another sci-fi drama crash-landed onto the streaming service’s platform.
But Annihilation is, to put it simply, totally and utterly mesmerising. With the brilliant Ex Machina, Garland impressively bridged the waters between the sexy, slick, marketable and the intelligent, philosophical, mind-bending brands of science fiction. With Annihilation, he has constructed an entirely new island. And one that is so dense in character, so rich in its visuals, and so bold in its ideas that it’ll be all you can think about for days afterwards. This is a story of literal boundaries that makes for a breath-taking film with very little ideological ones.
But Garland’s film also pushes boundaries in other areas too. It’s central all-female quintet, each with their own unique skill pallet – a biologist, a psychologist, a paramedic, a physicist and a geologist – is a welcome and timely change-up in convention, particularly poignant given the current climate in Hollywood. Portman’s Lena is the one we immediately cling our allegiances to. In Annihilation’s early moments, she paints the picture of a woman internally divided (scenes of her teachings on cell division and cancer cells give the film a neat, if not saddening, irony). Part of her is slowly coming to terms with the loss of her husband and the need to move on with her life. And yet part of her remains riddled with guilt (a revelation Garland keeps tucked up his sleeve until later); part of her is stagnating; gradually decaying.
And although Kane’s reappearance signals the fleeting return of something that resembles happiness, Garland’s work, as we’ve come to expect, contains far more narrative layers than first appears. As such, her journey into the Shimmer manifests itself as something different altogether: her one shot at redemption.
But Lena is not the only one with whom Garland fleshes with impressive characterisation. His attentiveness to the supporting players is what helps elevate Annihilation to a weighty, delicate tale about the human condition that tackles grief, loss, and the human propensity for self-destruction. Each member of the team brings with them a different facet of the human personality and, aside from their more obvious occupational competencies, each has a sufficient backstory: a plausible reason driving them to embark on what is quite possibly a suicide mission into the beautiful, bleak unknown.
And that unknown – the Shimmer – is the canvas on which Garland paints his terrifying tale of wonder. Basking in the realms of horror, the Shimmer is a place that will boggle the mind and turn the stomach. To say too much would be to unfairly spoil the dark delights for first time viewers, but this is an odyssey that is at times Avatar; at times Arrival; and at times John Carpenter’s The Thing. Contained within the mysterious shroud is all manner of gorgeous and grotesque plant-life; creatures that will make you smile, squeal, and shriek; and concepts and ideas that will simultaneously expose and obliterate the limitations of science and our very idea of human existence. We are, after all, the product of something – be it through evolution or a higher power. Annihilation confidently explores the possibility of both.
This is a truly chilling, cerebral experience that, like the greats of the genre, treats the intellect of its audience with the utmost respect. There’s very little ‘dumbing down’ or definitive explanation here; giving Annihilation the rare power to leave each and every viewer with something very different to take away with them.
With Annihilation, Garland has delivered something beyond the realms of sci-fi excellence. Not merely a film, this is a journey of horrifying, existential beauty.