Annihilation is a strange product, the sort that would be expected from Alex Garland after Ex Machina – but maybe for the very best at the same time. I’ve admittedly never always been sold in on Alex Garland, so it was one among many reasons that I was unsure as to how Annihilation would have turned out for me, although what I still find fitting enough to say about it is that it’s a commendable effort. Nevertheless I think it’s only fitting that the experience that Annihilation is set to provide will be discomforting for the senses from start to finish, even if I’m not exactly sure I would say that everything about it works. Nonetheless I feel bad for those who won’t be able to witness it on the big screen as per their own wishes, but alas the experience it is set to provide is one not to be easily forgotten.
Our protagonist is Lena, played by Natalie Portman. She’s a biologist whose husband (Oscar Isaac) had gone off on a mission years ago as part of his duty with the military, and after a sudden return, she finds that he has come back but in a different state. It isn’t until then where she finds herself awake within an isolated base where she may find answers as to what happened to her husband, after being called over to a dangerous mission assigned by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Soon she enters a mysterious area where nature’s laws don’t apply, one in which many teams that have been assigned to enter have never returned. As expected from Alex Garland, he finds himself at his most awe-inducing as we explore the alternated world created by “the shimmer,” and as it builds itself more from there, it only feels hypnotic.
For as much as people would like to draw comparisons regarding the film’s meditative tone to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, I found that the film was more in line with the work of John Carpenter. Not to say that it is ever a bad thing, because this is a work of pure pulp, made clear from the first creature attack. For how much it lifts from such work, it makes the atmosphere of “the shimmer” feel so unsettling and that’s where Annihilation finds itself at its most successful. Alex Garland, being a distinctive visual filmmaker only continues to showcase more awe from here through his use of practical effects and CGI in order to create the world of “the shimmer,” but because he is willing to explore such as a landscape and not as a background, it’s hard not to be won over by the awe of such a world.
But because of the noted meditative nature that Garland tries to employ for this film, it’s also where I’m convinced that it doesn’t quite work the way that I know he wishes it would. Considering the film finds itself at its best when observing the alternated world of “the shimmer” akin to a horror film, I’m not exactly sure that Garland has fully decided what sort of science fiction does he wish for Annihilation to be. At times, it is awe-inspiring but at others it can be a bore, but then there comes the need for the film to be told with a nonlinear approach. When it comes by, it also feels very distracting from the film’s best moments, and breaks the tension that its world sets itself to create. It feels broken apart because these moments seem to answer questions that would already come to your mind as you’re watching the film, so there’s not so much to really “meditate” on.
I did enjoy Annihilation overall, but as I remember having felt about Ex Machina, I’m not quite sure it reaches the level of greatness that I know it aspires to achieve. Natalie Portman, whom I’ve never always been a fan of, is fantastic, being the perfect guide for viewers through “the shimmer,” carrying a perfect sense of brokenness as a result of the unfamiliar environment – but the cast mostly (I say mostly because I don’t quite think that Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character works as well as it should) works with what they have. Just like the best science fiction, the experience is absorbing but it isn’t until the final moments where I was completely in awe. I do wish more of the film had presented itself the way that ending unfolded.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Paramount.
Directed by Alex Garland
Screenplay by Alex Garland, from the novel by James VanderMeer
Produced by Scott Rudin, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Eli Bush
Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac
Release Year: 2018
Running Time: 115 minutes