REVIEW: Annihilation

March 12, 2018

Director: Alex Garland
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac
Runtime: 115 Minutes




Annihilation’s release has been marginally soiled as far as its global release is concerned. Produced by Paramount Pictures, the studio revaluated the film shortly before release due to its poor testing with audiences, and instead sold the distribution rights for territories outside of countries with a viable chance at the box-office to Netflix. It’s a shame for writer/director Alex Garland, who along with his producer fought tooth and nail with a studio that had little to no faith in their products being a commercial success.


So its arrival on Netflix in the UK is both a sad case for original filmmaking, as this is very much an experience that has been designed for a cinematic environment as opposed to being screened on a personal home device, but also a benefit given that a wider audience might now be exposed to it.


But it's not difficult to see why Paramount got cold feet when it came specifically to the selling of this film, because Annihilation is the kind of experimental and deeply heady science-fiction that just doesn’t get made as often anymore.


Although based on the similarly titled 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer – the first in a trilogy of novels called the 'Southern Reach Trilogy' – Garland’s adaptation uses the source material more as a jumping off point of ideas for his own take on the material. Utilising elements of the story, characters and setting before taking off on its own voyage of discovery as our band of five military scientists as they enter "The Shimmer", a mysterious quarantined zone full of mutating landscapes and creatures.


It's really a film that’s best walked into as cold as possible, because amongst the many surprises to be found in Annihilation is how leisurely it paces itself out, and how assured it is of its own identity and the journey it plans to take the audience on. Said journey really is more of the point of the whole endeavour than the destination itself. Although set with a narrative goal, it’s the time spent with the characters and in this uncanny landscape where the experience of the film takes over from the regimented plotting of so many like it in the genre.


Beginning with a premise closer to a 90s Hollywood action film, in presentation, mood and aesthetic it feels like something far closer to the works of Andrei Tarkovsky. Not just because its expedition narrative bares comparison to Stalker – or even to Solaris in its realising of an alien landscape where time and memory are becoming heavily contorted constructs – but in the way it combines elements of science-fiction with dramatic philosophical and psychological themes such as grief, death, love and humanity's self-destructive tendencies.


The transformative nature of the film through its stages is mirrored by its sense of reality slowly slipping from it, as a dreamlike logic slowly begins to rule the decision making of not only the characters within "The Shimmer" but the film’s elemental components of framing, editing and aural construction as the strange high-pitched scratching and low rumbling of the score slowly appear to merge with the diegetic components of the environment. This is science and biology gone haywire, and the medium will have to just work around it just to make it fit.


The dangers of the world are as real as they come, from encounters with mutated alligators and corpses of bodies that appear to have undergone some beastly transformation. There’s a terrifying sequence involving a hellish bear-like creature where the sound design work is so utterly unnatural and distressing alone that it brings back terrifying memories of audiences first experiences of The Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth.


The idea postulated is that everything within "The Shimmer" is being refracted, including DNA. But this could extend to the way in which time is distorted, or how memories seem to form physical constructs. This is postulation though, as thankfully the film doesn’t offer any easy answers or resolve to many of its smaller details that would ordinarily raise questions. This isn’t narrative cinema playing by the rules, but the film doesn’t use this to show off and instead brings these ideas back to the audience to think on as it moves slowly toward its transcendent, mystifying and astonishingly beautiful climax.


Natalie Portman carries much of the film’s narrative weight as Lena with her own tortured backstory, but she’s proved herself beyond capable of handling work as strange as this on her own, but thankfully the performances from the cast are unvaryingly excellent. The traits collide with one another in fascinating ways as an array of performances are given. Tessa Thompson’s timid physicist Josie, Gina Rodriguez’s hard-headed paramedic Anya and Tuva Novotny's cryptic surveyor and geologist Cass are all compelling presences with genuine emotional instability and rationale.


Jennifer Jason Leigh’s decision to play psychologist Dr Ventress with distinctly drained energy is inspired as it only makes sense later on. Garland’s screenplay rarely relies on heavy exposition to build his characters. Instead just letting the actors get on with it themselves.


If Alex Garland proved he could handle complex science-fiction before with Ex Machina, then this is his promise more than lived up too. Annihilation is a beautifully directed, superbly acted, electrifying piece of dense and intelligent genre cinema where its enigmatic storytelling works into making it such a memorable and stimulating encounter of a film.


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