Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac
This review contains spoilers.
A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply. (Source: IMDb)
It’s hard to believe that this is only Alex Garland’s second directorial effort, and when you deliver a debut as stunning as Ex Machina, then there were understandably going to be huge amounts of hype for his follow-up, Annihilation. In a last minute shock decision, it was pulled from a UK cinema release and instead given to Netflix, supposedly considered “too intellectual” for cinema audiences. Some might be insulted by that, but to be honest, that is the biggest selling point this movie could have; intellectual sci-fi could not be more up my street!
Annihilation is undeniably a head-scratcher and I cannot even pretend like I understood it as soon as the credits started to roll. It is however a film which demands time be spent with it, it lingers with you after it has finished, and it requires a fairly sizeable chunk of time be devoted to reading up about it afterwards as well. Comparisons have been made to Alien, Under the Skin, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and whilst all of these comparisons are justified, Annihilation is entirely its own beast. It is easily one of the most thought-provoking films I have watched in a long time, almost undefinable when it comes to genre, and a film which is as thematically dense as it is visually striking.
The film focuses on five women, particularly singling out Natalie Portman’s Lena, as they go on a mission into the mysterious “shimmer” – a seemingly other-worldly phenomenon which is expanding and changing its environment in mysterious and unusual ways. At times the “mutations” (as they are referred to) are beautiful – such as the cross-breeding flowers that defy all the laws of nature – and at other times they are horrifying. The sense of destruction but also growth and change is one of the key themes that runs through Annihilation and this not only applies to the environment but the characters as well.
Lena might initially seem like the most adjusted out of them all, but as the film unravels, so do the characters, and each has a definable weakness and flaw; that being that there is something about each of them that provokes their willingness to take on this “suicidal” mission. The film focuses on the idea of self-destruction and is in many ways an allegory for mental health, and most notably, depression. Anya (Rodriguez) is an alcoholic, Josie (Thompson) has scars from self-harming and suicide attempts, Cass (Novotny) lost her child to Leukemia, and as much later revealed, Dr Ventress (Jason Leigh) has cancer. Lena is living with guilt and internal scars as well – her initial perfect marriage to Kane (Isaac) shatters when she is revealed to be having an affair with a co-worker. The characters are changed by the shimmer in unique and interesting ways; in fact you could spend an entire post just unpacking these to be honest!
Perhaps the thing which helps best explain Annihilation is to look at the two dictionary definitions of the word:
- Complete destruction or obliteration.
- The conversion of matter into energy, especially the mutual conversion of a particle and an antiparticle into electromagnetic radiation.
Both of these definitions apply to the film in equal measure, and how the film grapples with this is truly mind-blowing. Once again thinking of the allegory for mental health, the sense that something simultaneously has the power to destroy and change is the key to understanding Annihilation. The film manages to express this so potently and so beautifully, and there is no doubt that it is the sort of film which will massively benefit from repeated watches to fully appreciate all it has to offer.
Looking at the film in a more traditional sense, Garland’s direction and writing are sheer perfection; as measured and precise as we would expect. The use of reflection, light, colour, and the seamless blending of the natural and the nature-defying is exquisite. The score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is fantastic as well; tense where it needs to be, dramatic in places, and full of the same intrigue and power of the film itself. The performances across the board are exceptional as well; in fact the five female leads are all so great it is impossible to pick a stand-out amongst them.
I saw this movie and you should too. Annihilation is thought-provoking sci-fi at its very best, and for UK audiences, the cinema’s loss is undoubtedly Netflix’s gain. In a world of distractions and demands, particularly when viewing at home, I cannot express enough how important it is to fully immerse yourself in this film. Do not be put off by the moniker of it being “too intellectual”, if anything that is the highest compliment that could be paid to this film. They don’t make films like this often, but maybe they should. Simply astounding.