Review: Alex Garland's 'Annihilation' is Visually Inventive, Intellectually Ambitious
by Adam Frazier
February 23, 2018
English novelist, screenwriter, and filmmaker Alex Garland rose to prominence in 1996 with the release of his first novel, The Beach. After Danny Boyle filmed an adaptation of the book (released in 2000), Garland transitioned into screenwriting, with a proclivity for dystopian science fiction. His impressive filmography reads like an abbreviated list of the best sci-fi movies of the 21st century, including 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007), Never Let Me Go (2011) and Dredd (2012). In 2015, Garland made his directorial debut with the sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, for which his script was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award. Garland's second directorial effort, Annihilation, is another mind-bending masterstroke in the writer-director's ambitious oeuvre that will prove profound to some viewers, but polarizing to others.
Based on the novel of the same name written by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation stars Academy Award-winner Natalie Portman as Lena, a military veteran and biology professor who is mourning the loss of her soldier husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). Initially presumed K.I.A., Kane suddenly returns home a year after his disappearance with no memory of what happened or how he got there. When Lena attempts to rush her comatose husband to the emergency room, a shadowy government agency intercepts the ambulance and takes them to a top-secret facility. There, Lena meets psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who debriefs her on Kane's mission to explore "Area X", an environmental disaster zone surrounded by a mysterious, otherworldly phenomenon known as The Shimmer.
Determined to decode what happened her to husband, and how she might reverse it, Lena volunteers to join the next expedition into "Area X". Led by Ventress, the expedition's team consists of paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson). Each member has been recruited for their specific skill set and, like Lena, have their own reasons for joining up. Once they pass through the rainbow-tinted veil of The Shimmer, the expedition discovers that the anomalies within defy the laws of the natural world. Everything from the behavior of flora and fauna to the properties of light and the passage of time are radically altered. Together, they must navigate a lush terrain teeming with mutated landscapes and organisms, to reach the phenomenon's point of origin and uncover the shocking truth at the heart of The Shimmer before they, too, are changed.
A contemplation of our species' desire for self-destruction, Garland's latest is a mind-bending, transcendent work that marvels at the beauty that can be born out desolation. Despite being so highbrow, Annihilation remains a very human story, even when it dives head-first into the existential abyss in the third act. It helps that Garland writes interesting, capable female characters and casts an ensemble with the talent necessary to make the emotional side work. Leigh brings nuance to the mysterious and magnetic Dr. Ventress, while Portman and Thompson are sufficiently vulnerable in their roles. It's Gina Rodriguez, however, who delivers the film's standout performance, mainly because it's such a departure from her goody-two-shoes character on "Jane the Virgin". Her Anya is an ass-kicker who slowly becomes unhinged, losing her grip on reality, and it's a blast to watch. Oscar Issac, on the other hand, is more or less wasted here – his part is a small one, and he adds a lot to it, but after his brilliant turn in Ex Machina, his limited role is a little disappointing.
The movie is a fascinating amalgam of pulp sci-fi action, such as Ridley Scott's Alien and John McTiernan's Predator, and more cerebral art house films like Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, as well as Denis Villeneuve's Arrival. And while it definitely is intellectually engaging, it still delivers on visceral thrills. Garland is relentless, ratcheting up the anxiety and tension as the team moves further and further into the unknown. Some moments are staggering in their profound beauty, like the scene where the group stumbles across a kind of topiary garden where flowers have taken humanoid form, and others are truly horrific – like one particularly grotesque abomination that will haunt my dreams for years to come. It's this balancing act of dread and wonder that makes Annihilation so damn captivating.
With stirring cinematography by Rob Hardy (of Ex Machina, and the upcoming Mission: Impossible - Fallout) and a haunting score by Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury (of Dredd, Ex Machina), Annihilation is an uncompromising work that stays with you long after the movie is over. For the niche audience that welcomes the challenge of a visually inventive, emotionally affecting, and intellectually stimulating movie, Garland's film will be celebrated as an instant classic. Personally, I was left speechless by Annihilation's final moments; it's a hard movie to write about because words fall short – especially when you're concerned about revealing too much. To paraphrase an old Zen Buddhist analogy, I am but a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.
There are no easy answers in Annihilation; no single path towards the truth, but this weird, beautiful, and thought-provoking journey into the unknown is wholly satisfying. If we see a better science fiction film this year, it will be a great year for cinema indeed.
Adam's Rating: 5 out of 5
Follow Adam on Twitter - @AdamFrazier