Something of a sneaky masterpiece, Alex Garland's mystery-laden, sci-fi trip is rewarding in its audacity and adventurous in its exploration into the humanistic depths, adapted from Jeff VanderMeer's novel.
Written By: Nigel Asipa
If there’s one thing that annoyed me by the time i finished Annihilation was that it’s on Netflix. Months earlier we were treated to a pulse-pounding trailer that would promise cinematic credibility. But then again, Science Fiction/Psychological thrillers aren’t exactly box office gold (take a look at the figures for Bladerunner 2049 despite its critical acclaim). A few months from now i probably won’t have Netflix, and there isn’t at the moment any promise for a home video release.
Still, even if i were to remove the uber-popular digital platform from my home viewing experience, that wouldn’t equate to me forgetting about writer/director Alex Garland’s dense, strange but ultimately challenging thinking-piece on evolution, ecology and evil. Rewarding still with upping the ante in the filmmaking department, stellar performances from a fully realised cast, fantastic production design and eyegasmic visual effects that are both awe-inspiring but never distracting.
Natalie Portman’s Lena is a biologist with military credentials who’s married to Oscar Isaac’s Kane who’s a special ops soldier who returns home after being missing for around a year. His disappearance can’t be explained, and pretty soon, his debilitating state has him and her riding in the back of an ambulance. Except they don’t reach a hospital, but Area X; hidden government facility where Lena is interrogated by Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Dr Ventress shows Lena a mysterious, all-encompassing force that’s growing by the day, and has been for the last few years. Ventress calls it ‘a phenomenon’, but most have called it ‘a shimmer’. Whatever it is, it’s caused Kane to haemorrhage blood, causing multiple organ failure. Feeling she can’t do much sitting beside him, she vies to find out the true nature of the shimmer and hopefully save her husband. She won’t be going it alone, however, Both she and Ventress are joined by Tessa Thompson’s physicist Josie Radek, Tuva Novotny’s anthropologist Cassie Shepard and Gina Rodriguez’s paramedic Anya Thorensen. All have their motives for deciding on this seeming suicide mission where it’s theorised those from previous expeditions have either been killed by something or killed by one another.
Once past the veil of cerebral energy, they and we are stricken with bewilderment at the power and capacity of the shimmer. One might be disturbed if one of the crew members were too fascinated with it. The technology is rendered useless and the further the crew goes, the more disorientated and displaced they become. One may even question if the shimmer is, in fact, affecting them at all and the team are just plagued by just plain distress and discomfort. Whether it be escaping from their own personal hell or be a part of history and becoming a part of scientific innovation, each has their own motive for their being there.
As the women document and extract whatever they find, things get weird and seemingly nightmarish as the contamination spreads and freak occurrences pounce on them with malicious tendencies. It becomes as clear as the shimmer itself that what they’re dealing with is beyond containment and the only thing to preserve is their well being and sanity.
You know a script is good when you envision it being written as the story progresses and the control of information only amplifies the story’s ambiguous flourishes. The direction is calm and done with intelligible ambition and adds a claustrophobic atmosphere to the more slower moments. It skimps on the scientific jargon that makes it all the more accessible that even those less tolerance for thinking person’s sci-fi can manage and perhaps appreciate.
The visual beauty is matched by Rob Hardy’s stellar cinematography, aided by top-notch production design and an eerie, haunting score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow that give the mood a sense of hopelessness. It’s also helped by an accomplished cast that wouldn’t need much direction at all. Portman, in particular, shows great physicality that promises future action movie ventures. The action in this indeed pops with grisly fashion, and the tension brings an insidious quality. The fact that the shimmer can transform anything and everything in its space, it clues you in what fate lies in wait for each crew member, some more fulfilling than others I’m sure. While you may leave your affinity for the women at the door, the thematic concern with the impulsive drive of humanity may have you identify with them quicker than you think.
In one of the more intriguing, telling moments is when Ventress says to Lena, “almost none of us commit suicide, but all of us self-destruct”. Everything we do is impulses, not decisions which bring about the inevitability of our tendency to destroy and rebuild. Is it even possible to break free of our own conventions? Are we innately nihilistic that our means of evolution stems from our natural resort to breaking down to in order to expand? Its demand for repeated viewing is reminiscent of the experience i had with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Once you understand the connection it’s trying to make with you; you ponder on your own instances of desire, interactions with the world and self-affirmation.By the time the credits roll, whether you dug its courage to veer into weird, surreal territory or were put off at its self-indulgence, you’ll be unpacking the theories for a little while afterwards.