Director Alex Garland blends high concept sci-fi with stunning visuals and a dash of horror for an exciting female-led film in Annihilation.
Based on the book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer – the first in his Southern Reach Trilogy – Annihilation is the second big screen directorial effort from Alex Garland. Garland made a name for himself in Hollywood by working on a number of high-concept science fiction scripts, including 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd. He made his directorial debut in 2015 with the critically acclaimed independent sci-fi/thriller Ex Machina, which earned Garland an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Original Screenplay. Now, the writer/director returns with another high-concept sci-fi movie, this time based on VanderMeer’s 2014 novel. Director Alex Garland blends high concept sci-fi with stunning visuals and a dash of horror for an exciting female-led film in Annihilation.
Annihilation revolves around army veteran turned academic biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), who is stunned when her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), returns from a mysterious mission – though he isn’t quite the same man who left one year prior. Soon after his return, Kane becomes gravely ill, and he and Lena are taken to Area X by the Southern Reach organization that sent Kane’s army unit on the mission in the first place. Eventually, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) reveals the phenomenon known as the shimmer to Lena, and explains that there’s very little they know about it. In fact, all they know is the shimmer started at a lighthouse and has been expanding for the three years they’ve been studying it, but no one they’ve sent into the shimmer has returned – that is, until Kane.
In an effort to save her husband, Lena joins the expedition into the shimmer lead by Dr. Ventress, who is determined to reach the lighthouse and discover the source of the shimmer. Aside from those two, the expedition includes Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). However, their expedition takes a strange turn almost immediately, and only gets stranger from there as they learn more about the shimmer and what exactly it’s doing to the piece of Earth it touches. As they venture further into the shimmer, members of the team become more and more devoted to finding answers, even as the expedition becomes increasingly dangerous.
Despite being Garland’s next project after his critical hit in Ex Machina, Annihilation has had a fraught path to release. After a deal between the film’s distributor, Paramount, and Netflix, Annihilation will be released on the streaming service in most countries, though the film will still have a theatrical run in the United States, Canada, and China. Reportedly, the deal arose after Skydance Productions head and Annihilation producer David Ellison voiced concerns that the film is “too intellectual,” “too complicated,” and Portman’s character is too unlikable, but executive producer David Rudin defended Garland’s vision and had final say over the film’s final cut. To be certain, Annihilation is a high-concept science fiction film that offers a complicated, intellectual experience – but that’s exactly Garland’s bread and butter when it comes to filmmaking, and he’s able to deliver an emotionally compelling and exciting film in Annihilation.
Garland’s script for Annihilation draws on the dreamy, surreal qualities of VanderMeer’s novel by telling the story in a not-completely-linear manner, jumping between two points in time to keep audiences just as disoriented as the characters within the film. Garland’s work behind the camera allows for the film’s beautiful and brutal set pieces to come to life, with help from cinematographer Rob Hardy. There is a dichotomy between the nightmarish and the beautiful in the shimmer, and Garland’s direction helps the movie shift between these disparate scenes with ease. Additionally, with the exception of certain elements of shaky CGI in the third act, the set design of Annihilation keeps the surrealist landscape of the shimmer grounded in stunning practical effects, helping viewers be fully immersed in this world.
And leading viewers through this world are Portman, Leigh, Thompson, Rodriguez, and Novotny – the five female stars on which the emotional crux of Annihilation hinges. Portman is, of course, the main star of the film and she delivers a complex performance as a scientist fascinated by the shimmer and a woman emotionally devoted to her husband. Portman’s Lena is not perfect, as the film showcases, though the character is all the more fascinating for this depth. Leigh, for her part, plays the enigmatic Ventress well, though perhaps too much of the character’s depth is explained through exposition rather than showed in the actress’s performance. Thompson, Rodriguez, and Novotny round out the main cast with strong performances in turn, with each given their moments to shine. But like Ventress, their characters are somewhat underserved by the script, even though they make up for it with compelling performances.
All in all, Annihilation is a thought-provoking genre film about humanity that additionally delivers on the thrills and scares typical of sci-fi horror movies. Garland brings the shimmer and the world of VanderMeer’s novel to life with visceral clarity, even as Annihilation dives into more complicated concepts of what exactly the shimmer is, where it comes from, and what it means for humankind on Earth. All throughout the film, Garland expertly blends the concrete adventure of the expedition into the shimmer with the more intellectual questions at the root of the story in a way that pushes the boundaries of the sci-fi genre. With an exceptionally strong female-led cast – and extremely solid supporting work from Isaac as Kane – Annihilation is a sci-fi film for the modern era.
That said, Annihilation won’t be for everyone. Its basic premise of the adventurous expedition into an unknown phenomenon is undoubtedly an exciting entry point for the story, but Annihilation isn’t a simple creature feature (though there are some of those elements) – nor does it offer any easy answers for viewers. Rather, Annihilation is an intellectual, complicated sci-fi offering, but genre releases in recent years have proved a high-concept film like Garland’s can be enjoyed by many kinds of moviegoers. Perhaps it’s good that Annihilation will be released on Netflix in many international markets as it opens the door for casual movie fans to give the film a chance, though the movie’s visuals are certainly worth a big-screen viewing. Ultimately, though, Garland follows up Ex Machina with a return to the sci-fi genre with an exciting, beautiful, and thought-provoking adaptation of VanderMeer’s novel in Annihilation.
Annihilation is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It runs 115 minutes and is rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality.
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