7.5 out of 10
Natalie Portman as Lena
Directed by Alex Garland
Alex Garland is the real deal when it comes to heady, complicated cinematic science fiction. While Ex Machina is ostensibly about artificial intelligence, in reality it dives deep into the relationships and the differences between men and women. The scripts that he’s worked on over the years, such as Sunshine, The Beach, and even the pulpy Dredd suggest someone who is far more interested in what is beneath the surface of things, and his adaptation of Annihilation (based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer) is no different. On its surface, this seems to be a film about a possible alien invasion, but Garland has much more in mind than, perhaps, the invasion films that you may be used to.
Flat out, Annihilation isn’t for everyone. At times it feels cold, and it refuses to explain with any real satisfaction what is happening, letting the audience come to their own conclusions. Even at its most familiar, Annihilation isn’t interested in making the audience comfortable, and the third act of the film will lose a lot of people. But if audiences give it a chance, they might find themselves intrigued by what it has to say. I have not read the novel the film is based on, but Garland seems to very much place us within an alien world that seemingly has no connection to anything we have seen before. Plus, we are given compelling characters to follow, each with her own goals, guilt, and reasons for being there. It’s got strong performances across the board, which makes the stranger aspects of the film easier to follow.
An asteroid strikes the earth, hitting a lighthouse off a beach. Over time, the environment surrounding the lighthouse begins to change, time becomes distorted, and the wildlife within what is called “the Shimmer” seems to be changing as well, taking on aspects of other animals. And the Shimmer is growing, day by day. Several times, the armed forces sent in soldiers to examine inside the Shimmer, and none have returned – none, that is, until Kane (Oscar Isaac) shows up at his home a year after disappearing on his mission. Lena (Natalie Portman) has no idea where Kane has gone, and saddled with her own guilt and anguish, decides to follow Kane’s journey into the Shimmer herself. She has military experience, and Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) thinks that her team, made up of women scientists and soldiers, may succeed where others have failed.
But once inside the Shimmer, the mission goes awry – creatures attack them, strange animals that seem to be hybrids. Even the plant life starts to change aspects, becoming more human in appearance. And Lena begins to understand the true alien nature of what is happening, and if the world will recover from what is happening remains to be seen, and the possibility of humanity’s extinction.
Much of the imagery of Annihilation is fantastic. Garland has a way of making the seemingly familiar turn strange and discordant, setting us all on edge. Everyone has their reasons for going on what seems to be a suicide mission, but as the team goes deeper into the Shimmer, those motivations themselves become suspect. For Lena, she wants answers – answers for what happened to Kane, but more so, a sort of reckoning and absolving of her own flaws. What is happening in the Shimmer is more than simple invasion, or destruction – much like the meteor that killed the dinosaurs, the world seems to be slowly rewritten.
There are several intense moments in Annihilation, including a creature attack that plants the film in pure horror territory. Portman makes us believe in the strangeness of everything; it’s a confident performance that forces us as an audience to ask questions of everything we are told or what we are seeing. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr. Ventress is just as compelling; as the team leader she helps keep everyone together as she herself begins to fall apart. The supporting cast — Tessa Thompson, Benedict Wong, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny — are all strong.
It’s the third act, where things get truly weird, that will test audiences, perhaps to breaking. Annihilation refuses to let us in, and forces us to make our own interpretations. For many, this will prove frustrating, but for a science fiction geek like myself, I found it invigorating and brave. Alex Garland isn’t afraid to leave us stranded, forcing us to find our own way back, and while the conclusion may seem unsatisfactory, all the pieces are there if audiences are willing to lift the weight and pick them up. I imagine that Annihilation will probably not make much money at the box office; I also think that it will be discovered by many people looking for challenging material later on. We don’t get very much thoughtful science fiction these days when it’s much easier just to give us action and explosions, so a film like Annihilation feels like a gift. I hope that Alex Garland keeps dreaming those odd, discordant dreams; cinema is much better for it. At times frustrating, vague, and mysterious, I still found Annihilation a journey worth taking.