Alex Garland’s latest film, Annihilation, is a Sci-Fi/Drama/Thriller starring Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Benedict Wong, Gina Rodriguez, David Gyasi, and Tuva Nuvotny.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist whose solider husband (Oscar Isaac) mysteriously reappears in their kitchen after disappearing on a mission one year prior. Before she can learn anything, they are both apprehended and quarantined at an unnamed facility. As a result of her army and science background, Lena is approached by Dr. Ventress (Leigh) to join the 12th expedition into the phenomena known as the Shimmer. As Ventress explains, the exact nature of the Shimmer is a mystery, and the only certainty is that whatever goes in never returns, not until Lena’s husband. In order to learn the truth, Lena joins the expedition team consisting of a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a linguist. As they learn, the Shimmer is an ever expanding prism, reflecting life back upon itself – what they see as destruction is ultimately shown to be merely the hybridization of all life.
The source material for the film comes from the 2014 novel of the same name by author Jeff VanderMeer, one of the pre-eminent writers in the modern literary movement dubbed “New Weird.” According to author/professor Robin Anne Reed, the genre tends to “subvert clichês of the fantastic in order to put them in discomforting, rather than consoling ends.” This statement alone captures the tone of the film perfectly. The entire run time teems with an unsettling disorientation and vague sense of doom that make it more impacting than even 2016’s Arrival, but eventually descends into trope after trope of gothic horror stories.
Garland’s screenplay adaptation and direction are a solid match for bringing this new weird story to the screen. As the screenwriter of 28 Days Later and auteur behind Ex Machina, Garland has a strong sense for creating tension, atmosphere, and ambiguous unease. The nonlinear asides in the film’s structure allow for the most poignant scenes to drive the emotional narrative and eventual subplot reveal. In separate timelines of the immediate past, present, and future – the scenes between Portman and Isaac, Portman and her inquisitor (Benedict Wong), and Portman with David Gyasi – anchor the film in a somewhat familiar reality for the sake of its audience. The film is at its when the science fiction, dramatic, and thriller elements are paired down to simple character moments.
Visually, the film boasts some strong cinematography – ranging from deeply saturated moments of passion to the pale, bleached out scenes of dread. In terms of the special effects, Garland offers some horrifyingly intriguing CGI/animatronic work (Albino Sharkodile?!?) to film’s portray the thematic element of random mutations gone awry.
The physical boundaries of the Shimmer itself is less than impressive as it actually just looks like a thin, wobbly version of Asgard’s Rainbow Bridge. The idea of the prism and reflections is best represented when done with simple in camera effects or cinematographic choices. For example, in the opening scene between Portman and Isaac, the immediate sense of unease is represented by the distorted image of the the married couple’s hands behind a glass of water. Again, the visualized moment wins again.
Nonetheless, the most disappointing elements of the film are directly related to its strengths. The film boasts an impressive ensemble of both seasoned and emerging actresses. Unfortunately, moments for real character exploration are shoved aside with expository dialogue. Upon entering the Shimmer, Leigh’s Dr. Ventress tells Lena in a one-line explanation the backstories of each of the women on the team. Without this scene, the characters of Thompson, Rodriguez, and Nuvotny would be mere props in a last woman standing gothic horror. Thompson and Rodriguez give particularly strong performances that elevate their characters beyond token supporting roles, but simultaneously show the weaknesses of the script’s disinterest in their characters as humans.
As a hybrid genre film, the stylistic elements of horror, sci-fi, and metaphysical drama are separate and unequal. Another lost opportunity occurs in the second act as instead of learning more about the women of the exploration team as they face unknown dread, the film falls into a spiral of“haunted house” clichés – “Who will go crazy? Who will die first? Who will survive?”). A lot of subtext is laid, but none of it really fulfilled in a meaningful or conscious way. As a result of the narrative being driven by Lena’s desire to find out what happened to her husband in the Shimmer (and a subplot involving an affair), the dramatic agency of the female lead is nullified because ultimately her actions are triggered by men.
She is a biologist and former soldier, but at the root of it all, her story is a love story. The other concepts presented in the film – life reflecting upon life, self-destruction as rebirth, evolution through hybridization – are more interesting than how they are dramatized and should spark some good post-film conversations. Still, too many big concepts thrown into a genre hybrid create a film that will excite some audiences, but at the same time alienate and tire others.
The film was recently released on February 23rd in the jet stream of Black Panther‘s historic (approaching legendary) critical and box office domination. With an estimated $40 million budget, the Annihilation took in only $11 million in its opening weekend. By comparison, Black Panther sold $108 million in a week. The film will make its budget back on the foreign and home video markets, but domestically it will probably barely break even. Timing is everything and the Panther still has its claws deep into the world box office and zeitgeist. However, for a great palette cleanser between a year slated with Sci-Fi Epics and Superhero spectacles, Annihilation definitely fills the void for fans of vague universal doom and evolutionary paranoia.
Highly recommended for fans of Mimic (Dir: Guillermo Del Toro), 28 Days Later (Dir: Danny Boyle), The Fountain (Dir: Darren Aronofsky), 12 Monkeys (Dir: Terry Gilliam), House of Leaves (Novel by Mark Z Danielewski), and Melancholia (Dir: Lars von Trier).