Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Annihilation
Writer-director Alex Garland's new sci-fi thriller Annihilation offers stunning visuals, mind-blowing conundrums, and an ambiguous ending. Garland, who also wrote zombie horror 28 Days Later and made his directorial debut with Ex Machina, scored a star-studded cast for his second feature film, including Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Oscar Isaac.
However, the most mind-blowing part of Annihilation - more than the special effects, the psychological acrobatics, or the shocking ending - is Gina Rodriguez's performance as Anya Thorensen, the Southern Reach team's troubled paramedic. While the film itself works better in some places than others, heavily adapting and transforming its source material into a sometimes uneven story, Rodriguez's performance brings a complex character to life and proves that she is an actress of the highest caliber.
More: Annihilation Review
Rodriguez is perhaps best known for her work on The CW's Jane the Virgin. Over four seasons of Jane, Rodriguez has danced, sang, rapped, and played a variety of personas in fantastical cut-away sequences. However, Jane is still meant to be a normal woman living with extraordinary circumstances, and Rodriguez plays her so well that the viewer may not notice the amount of attention and craft that goes into her performance.
By contrast, seeing Rodriguez in Annihilation illuminates just how much work she puts into her performances. Anya Thorensen seems like the opposite of Jane Gloriana Villanueva: she's a tell-it-like-it-is, tough-as-nails paramedic who struggles with addiction... and she makes a pass at Natalie Portman's character within minutes of meeting her. To prepare for the role, Rodriguez transformed herself: cutting her hair, shaving the side of her head, and doing intensive weight training.
At the start of the movie, Rodriguez gives Thorensen a warmth and humor that make her a scene-stealer. Then, as the team travels further into the Shimmer, Thorensen struggles with the loss of control over her body and mind as the Shimmer "refracts" her DNA. It's a specific kind of horror for her character, since she is a woman who is trying to regain control as a recovering addict. It's a moving performance that is let down only by the fact that we don't get to see more, due to Thorensen's early exit from the movie. After the disturbing death of a teammate, Thorensen suffers a psychotic break and takes the rest of her team hostage, but is mauled to death by a mutated bear before she can do further harm.
Rodriguez's portrayal of Thorensen is incredibly compassionate, and even as Thorensen's mind unravels and she turns towards violence against her team, she is never completely a victim or villain. Instead, Rodriguez allows her, like Jane, to be a realistic and complicated person, and the resulting performance, carefully conceived and expertly executed, is truly mind-blowing.
Annihilation may be the end of Anya Thorensen, but it can only be the beginning for Gina Rodriguez. Jane the Virgin fans will watch her with new eyes when the show returns in March.
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