Alex Garland (Ex Machina) makes a fantastic return as director/writer with Annihilation, which is based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel. It’s about five female scientists who enter a seemingly alien, jungle-like quarantine zone searching for the lost expedition. Only one of its members returned, and he happens to be biologist Lena’s (Natalie Portman) husband Kane (Oscar Isaac – good to see the Star Wars cast together and clever homage to Kane in Alien), or so it seems. After Kane lands in the hospital, Lena teams up with the seemingly icy Dr Ventress (played excellently by Jennifer Jason Leigh), who leads a team into the Shimmer (as the quarantine zone is called) to find out what happened. The film juxtaposes the current chronological timeline with flashbacks and flashforwards, and it works quite effectively, questioning our sense of identity and self-destructive impulses. Also interesting is the relationship between Lena and Kane as well as the nature of the extramarital affair that further drives them apart (Daniel has a shockingly low moral compass too ftw).
It’s a shame that it has such a limited release in theatres worldwide and going to Netflix almost right away – it’s a visually dazzling film with a haunting score and it’s truly meant to be seen in theatres (Garland has a similar lament). The CGI in the film is amazing, particularly the landscape and fauna (including two ungulates and a terrifying bear). The film also contemplates our relationship to nature and our niche in society. The Shimmer threatens and does unravel our sense of belonging and understanding, but it is not what it appears to be. I found the film to be much better than VanderMeer’s fairly mediocre book (great premise, poor execution). I also really enjoyed the character development and cared for most of the characters (I was hoping they would all make it out alive, but that’s not how things go in these types of movies). It’s a great role for the greatly talented and ever enchanting Portman, who continues to show her versatility as an actress, and I think this film happily passes the Bechdel test and has excitingly progressive representation of POC characters. Fans of Ex Machina, Blade Runner 2049, and The Martian (all categorised as intelligent sci fi) will enjoy this, although unfortunately it probably won’t receive the box office gross it deserves.
I understood this film on a literal level, but I suppose it is possible to read it figuratively as well, as perhaps part of a hallucination or dream state, although I prefer the reality of it, as fantastic as it can be. The effect of the Shimmer on the scientists subverses our expectations and the very behaviour of the scientists, bringing latent memories to the fore and altering their very being. One of my favourite scenes in the film is Dr Ventress’s discussion with Lena about self-destruction. It’s truly unlike anything you’ve seen before – there are some aspects of Stalker and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it really becomes a thing of its own. I would love to see more films like this, just wish it had more studio respect and more market, although The Martian was an intelligent sci fi film and it grossed millions of dollars. I’m not posting the trailer here because I think it’s misleading and part of a poor marketing campaign, but the film itself is excellent (as Garland has proven to be time and time again) and absolutely worth your time. Equally engaging is dissecting (har har) and analysing the film in all its parts and sequences, which will provide some interesting pub/dinner table discussions and sweet thoughts into the night. The film’s ending is deliberately ambiguous and you can come to your own conclusions about it, but I enjoyed it and I like to stay optimistic about things. Catch Annihilation in the theatres when you can because it is honestly one of the best sci fi films in recent years and absolutely worth your time.