I did adore Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s directorial debut after many years of being solely a writer. Every part of that film was the work of a well-thought out and well-executed process, from script to cinematography, with the demented three-person story playing out so well in the claustrophobic, head-wrecking surrounds. Garland showcased an ability to play with the audiences’ expectations, vividly showcase mental deterioration on-screen and draw out captivating performances from his principals.
But Annihilation is a very different beast, whose remarkable pre-production is eye-raising enough, before you even get close to its actual subject matter. That Garland felt confident enough to write a script for an adaptation of a book he had only a memory of is one thing, but that the film has actually been made on that basis, with Garland in charge, is something else. That the trilogy of the books Annihilation is based on wasn’t even completed at the time is also notable, as is the studio dispute over the final cut that resulted in Paramount selling off a portion of the films distribution rights to Netflix. Such a confluence of circumstances would easily make you think you were about to watch something akin to Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, but Garland already has one sci-fi slam-dunk under his belt: I was willing to give Annihilation a shot.
When her husband (Oscar Isaac) suddenly reappears a year after going missing on a secret military mission, cellular biology expert Lena (Natalie Portman) is tasked with undertaking the same task: to be part of a team entering a mysterious expanding zone of mutating landscapes and transforming creatures on the American west coast. The journey is filled with perils, both physical and mental, and no one will be prepared for what is at its heart of “the Shimmer”.
For such a strange, positively unique experience, it’s astonishing to me that Annihilation got as little attention as it did. Even The Cloverfield Paradox, a film nowhere near the same league, appears to have made a bigger impression on the popular consciousness. Love it, hate it, or confused by it, Annihilation deserves a bigger audience and a bit more discussion than it has been capable of attracting.
I mean, in a world where the #metoo movement and its associated campaigning for gender equality in Hollywood is a major part of the landscape, here is a high-concept, relatively well-financed sci-fi movie, whose central cast is almost entirely female. And it’s not a comedy and it isn’t the be-all and end-all of the experience, that is, the fact that it is an all-female team heading into “the Shimmer” is not a belaboured point, it is just presented to the audience. And it could have been belaboured, because there is an underlying thread of macho power, through all-out military missions, having failed in the task that Lena and her female scientist group are tasked with undertaking (Lena, and others, are all ex-military, but are identified primarily as civilian scientists).
The film is odd all over, and that’s reflected with its pacing, with an establishing act stretching out, an even longer second, and then a short but remarkably strange finale. The dynamic between this team – Portman’s Lena, Tessa Thompson’s Josie, Gina Rodriguez’ Anya, Tuva Novotny’s Cass and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Ventress – is what drives Annihilation on once we hit that lengthy middle section, which is the most interesting part of the experience.
The confluence of personalities – cynical, mission-driven, paranoid, inquisitive, scared – and professions provides a means for enthralling drama and appropriate exploration of what is occurring in the Shimmer, a mystery that straddles the line between Stephen King style psychological terror, Cronenberg body-horror and Michael Crichton-esque sci-fi. Suffice to say that there are monsters within and without, and it’s not hard to tell which Garland thinks are worse. Everyone has secrets, be they addictions, illness or something worse, and the Shimmer, a place that refracts everything that it is to be human into everything else, is the wrong place to be carrying the baggage around.
It’s Portman holding it together of course, with a thoughtful performance as Lena, who only lets the mask of deeper emotion slip on occasion, but is deeply sympathetic when it does. At times, Garland errs in her characterisation, like a revelation of her infidelity in her marriage that appears to have little other point than to make her look less like a hero. But overall Lena is interesting and followable, in her quest to discover the truth about her husband (a subdued but effective performance from Isaac), in her examination of the Shimmer and in her interactions with the other team members.
The rest is the mood created by Garland, in every frame, every editing decision and in every new unexpected plot-point. Annihilation, which you might guess from its title, is a very unsettling film, where the ordinary or the joyous is rapidly perverted. Lena’s husband returns home unexpectedly but he acts weird and then vomits blood. The team explores an astonishing natural phenomenon but start losing time and their grasp on reality. They encounter fantastical mutations in terms of plants, before transmogrified animals start attacking them. Even those same plants, early on perceived as a thing of unexpected beauty and variety, have an unsettling aspect to them that becomes clear in later sections.
It really isn’t unlike the mood Garland set-up in Ex Machina, just in very different surrounds, and it really marks Annihilation out. That ever-present sense of dread, of calamity about to occur just around the corner, and not necessarily the kind of visceral calamity of being torn to shreds by the latest Shimmer monstrosity, is so suffocating, and yet so intriguing, almost intoxicating. Garland seems to want you in a very uncomfortable place, before he hits you with the psychedelic nature of the films conclusion, for maximum effect.
Garland’s direction, and Rob Hadry’s cinematography, is focused on distortion and confusion, from Lena and Kane’s hands seen through a glass of water, to the border of the Shimmer, reminiscent of an expanding oil-slick, to the core of the mystery, a lighthouse surrounded by strange crystalline structures that resemble brain synapses. No frame of Annihilation, not even those in open spaces, feels entirely safe or non-claustrophobic, such is the breadth of the visual unease manufactured.
I won’t go too much into the ending – what would be the point, because if you haven’t seen the film you might not think I’m telling the truth – other than to say that I felt the film’s most fundamental question was on the nature of free will when placed under the prism of biological coding. Or, as one character puts it, discussing the difference between conscious suicide and programmed self-destruction. If that sounds weighty, that’s because it is, and Garland’s method of showcasing this on-screen, in a demented parlour game at the climax, is thoroughly unique and thoroughly thought-provoking (or, if feeling less charitable, confusing). The final frames only answer a few questions, and throw up a good few more, but do manage to maintain that chilling sense of dread, for the characters portrayed and for the human race at large.
We should not overlook the complexity of Annihilation in terms of criticism either. I would say that plenty will be put off by Garland’s artistry, which does not seek to create a well-rounded story free from ambiguity, with questions asked and answered. Without meaning to sound too patronising, it is a more cerebral experience than that, which does not lay claim to any description of being fully-formed. Unlike other films that favour vague symbolism and over-reliance on audience interpretation to propel themselves forward, Annihilation seems more like a filmed version of “It isn’t the destination that matters” playing out masterfully.
Annihilation never really got the audience its ambition and female driven story deserved, unless it was a sleeper hit on Netflix. That seems unlikely. For better or worse, this just isn’t the kind of film that would draw in a big audience, when more palatable and less confusing fare is on offer down just about any avenue. I don’t mean that to sound like a whine, it’s just unfortunate. But maybe it was able to grab just enough notice that the pre-eminent streaming platform may feel inclined to given projects of a similar scope a chance, where the theatres and the studios wont. On its own merits, it’s another remarkable offering from Garland in the director’s chair, with a fine cast, an engaging story and a depth that is positively rare in big-screen sci-fi nowadays. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures and Netflix).