Based upon the novel Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Written For The Screen and Directed by Alex Garland
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
Dear readers, I now introduce you to a film that has only grown in power since I have seen it, its images, concepts and feelings insinuating their way into my sub-consciousness disturbingly so.
Writer/Director Alex Garland's "Annihilation," his adaptation of the Jeff VanderMeer novel, is a sinister affair, to say the least. With a presentation that is unhurried in tone, making for an experience that is purposefully somnambulistic, Garland's film may leave you scratching your heads or even curiously wondering just what the point of it all was...just like a fading dream, and not a particularly calming one.
"Annihilation," as if you could gather from its title, is a disturbing dream of a film but not quite in the way that the title or science-fiction genre may suggest, for this is not a film about explosions or even a war of the worlds. In fact, what Garland has achieved is possibly even more unsettling than yet another tale of alien destruction, because instead of blowing everything into oblivion, what happens to us when something inexplicable is being created right within our midst. Alex Garland's "Annihilation" takes a deliberately paced and deeply cerebral yet primal dive into the mystic and emerges with one of 2018's most compelling films. A grand statement to make this early in our cinematic year to be true, but my sentiments rest in the full endorsement of a lavish and challenging film that more than deserves your attention.
"Annihilation" stars Natalie Portman as Lena, a Professor of cellular biology and former U.S. Army soldier who joins a team of military scientists--paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), geologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and group leader/psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh)--on a perilous journey into a mysterious quarantined zone known as "The Shimmer," a landscape in the throes of constant mutation and time manipulation, where all previous scientific expedition teams who have entered inside have never returned...except for Lena's husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who has returned one full year after his disappearance and with no memory of what occurred.
This is all that I feel that I am able to reveal to you about the film in regards to its plot without presenting copious spoilers, but what I am able to tell you is that Alex Garland's "Annihilation" is precisely the type of science fiction experience that we have rarely seen over the years but just might be making a sort of a comeback. It is a work that could easily fit in leagues with the likes of Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" (2014) and even Denis Villeneuve's "Arrival" (2016) and "Blade Runner 2049" (2017) as it is also a dark dream of a film that is exceedingly more concerned about ideas rather than action and adventure, although Garland does certainly supply several sequences designed to shake you up considerably and viscerally.
While the film's trailers suggest an experience akin to something more designed for science-fiction/horror hybrid, I think that what Garland has accomplished is quite an accomplished bait and switch, so to speak. By utilizing a structure that could feel like something we have seen within Ridley Scott's "Alien" (1979), with the characters disappearing from the film one-by-one, "Annihilation" reels us in. Yet, what Garland delivers is something considerably more esoteric and as murky as an enveloping and still haunting bad dream.
Working in terrific collaboration with Cinematographer Rob Hardy and especially the innovative and disturbing score from Composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, Alex Garland's film weaves a creeping, disquieting experience that felt most like what I saw in Jonathan Glazer's impressionistic, nightmarish "Under The Skin" (2013), which starred Scarlett Johansson as an alien who attracts, seduces, and collects a series of men in Scotland, and then imprisons them in a bottomless black liquid after which she will harvest their skins.
"Annihilaton" exists within this type of a cinematic science fiction neighborhood, where the atmosphere--complete with a seemingly endless trek, glowing irises, holes in the ground leading to new lands, and a mysterious lighthouse-- tells as much of the story as the plot, characters and dialogue. Of course, there is quite a lot of material that provides that suspenseful and even terrifying visceral kick--a sequence starring a mutating, sightless bear which carries the screams of its previous victim as a lure to its next victim is especially intense. But the real terror of the film is much more existential, more arcane, and exceedingly more primal than what one may be expecting, especially during the film's extended and nearly wordless climax.
Without delving into those spoilers, I can say that I wish for you to think about the nature of the life cycle itself--how things are born, how they grow and develop, strengthen, age, decay and then die. With "Annihilation," the title itself suggests that we are witnessing the end of something. But in fact, what we are witnessing in this film is something more simultaneous, for when something comes into being, then what is soon becomes what was, essentially the price of evolution itself.
It is as if The Shimmer exists as a womb, where all of the mutations of within plant, land and animal life combined with the manipulations of time in the minds of our team of scientist soldiers represent existence on Earth shifting into something new and inexplicable. Equally inexplicable is what occurs during and after the transformation. What becomes of us? What is our identity, before and after? Do we exist or have we become obsolete and would we even know anyway? With these concepts sitting at the soul of the film, Alex Garland's "Annihilation" owes much more to Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick than something more whiz-bang and the effect is powerfully lingering as I have not been able to really shake this film a full week after having seen it.
At this time, I do feel it necessary to comment upon the latest controversy concerning "Whitewashing" in regards to this film. What has been stated is that the characters portrayed by Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in the film are actually Asian and Native American, respectfully, within the original Jeff VanderMeer novels, which constitute a trilogy, of which this film is based upon the first novel. Garland has addressed this issue and has explained that when he first read the novel (and in manuscript form at that), the first novel contained no character descriptions, ethnicities or even names--all of which never appeared in print until the second novel. So, Garland approached the material as he wished and VanderMeer voiced his approval. So, with that, and with no disrespect to those who do have issue, I fully accept Garland's words and therefore, found no issue with the film myself in this area.
All of that being said, I think the controversy has greatly overshadowed what I feel is a superior achievement of Garland's film, and that is the fact that "Annihilation" entirely rests upon the shoulders of five women, all of whom are presented as serious and strong minded as well as scientists and soldiers. and all of whom are never objectified or sexualized (save for one flashback sequence) in any fashion. In fact, "Annihilation" never even makes note of the fact that this team is made up of women in the first place--they are five scientist soldiers on a perilous, life altering and potentially life ending mission who just happen to be all women. Frankly, I think that is something to be celebrated, especially in a genre that leans more heavily towards males, within the story and the audience.
Now, I don't wish to sound like I am treating this aspect of the film as a novelty but it is notable to say the least and I also don't wish for any controversies to eclipse what is already so positive about this difficult, challenging yet superbly artful film that is more than worthy of your attention, time and thoughts which will be provoked.
Alex Garland's "Annihilation" does indeed burrow under the skin and is unquestionably a strong credit and conceptual push to the science fiction film genre.