Contains Minor Spoilers
Writer/director Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name stars Natalie Portman as cellular biologist and former soldier Lena who joins a top secret government expedition to uncover the mystery of “The Shimmer” – an apparently extraterritorial anomaly that has engulfed an area of the Southern coast from which no soldier has ever returned, with the exception of her Special Forces husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who returns to her but soon falls gravely ill. Entering the anomaly with several other experts, she notices some particularly strange plant and animal life and as the group moves further onwards, without direction or proper sense of time, they make several unsettling discoveries that could have dire consequences for all involved.
First of all, the film begins slightly uncertainly as it’s a little slow in finding its feet and the initial setup of the “mission” doesn’t particularly inspire confidence as it can be a little puzzling figuring out what the main objective actually is and just why Lena is being brought along in the first place – it may be because she’s an expert in cell biology but the main reason seems to be so that she can discover what happened to her husband. In addition, there are a few early scenes of Portman’s character grieving over the “loss” of her husband in a far too obvious way – by sitting all alone on her sofa, looking at a locket with a small picture of him inside and quietly crying, all of which is surely a little too cliché and tiresome in this day and age. The first half hour or so also makes Annihilation seem like this year’s Arrival, seeing as how it’s set up to be about a grieving and haunted academic professional who’s selected to help decipher a strange occurance, possibly involving aliens. Not that that’s any kind of criticism.
In the long run though, all of that’s just nit-picking because when the central characters get going on their journey, all fears and uncertainties are put to rest and what follows is a journey into the unknown that is very often fascinating, visually absorbing, highly original and assuredly directed.
What the film does best, I think, is creating an intriguing, unsettling and unpredictable atmosphere, particularly in its second act, and this is mainly down to the confident direction as well as the brief snippets of music and the sound design – very often, the unsettling silence and the ominous sounds of the rustling wind and the far off animal calls give Annihilation that tense atmosphere which always keeps you on the lookout. It’s definitely one of those films which is more of an experience than a straightforward piece of cinema and as such, the visuals on display are incredibly effective and accomplished; as well as the bright and luminous design of “The Shimmer” and so forth, the production design is also on-point as the look of the outdoor environment that has been overthrown by alien flora, channelling the likes of The Girl with All the Gifts or maybe the red weed from The War of the Worlds, is both beautiful and unsettling in equal measure – as is said in the film, the environment can be nightmarish but also incredibly beautiful. The film culminates with scenes that take place in and around an all-important lighthouse, the eerie epicentre of the mysterious activity, and the visual effects here are well done indeed, with the huge visual extravaganza and subsequent creature encounter calling to mind the finales of both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Under the Skin; it’s all very compelling, absorbing and visceral and at the end of the day, Annihilation‘s visual effects and design are really quite memorable and pleasing to the eye.
The visuals also impress when it comes to the mutated animals; we see gruesome and hellish beasts such as a particularly bloodthirsty alligator and a vicious bear that growls with the voice of a fallen ally (a Hunger Games literary reference?) alongside the unexpectedly graceful sight of two “alien” deer and these creations are certainly original, imaginative and, with the exception of the peaceful deer, often admirably deadly and shocking to behold. And as mentioned before, the score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is especially effective because when it is (briefly) heard in the middle section, it is often slow, haunting and quite beautiful, and it moves into a Mica Levi/Under the Skin kind of sound during the finale, continuing to make the film a visceral and wholly compelling experience.
A large part of Annihilation‘s appeal is its story, which is full of unique and ambitious ideas, thankfully bringing something brand new to the sci-fi table. Although the concepts occasionally seem quite confusing, difficult to fully comprehend or wrap your head around, the explanation of what “the shimmer” is and what the unknown entities are doing to the landscape and the wildlife (as put forward by Tessa Thompson’s character relatively early on in the film) is refreshingly fascinating and it’s satisfying to see that Alex Garland is introducing some new and original ideas to the sci-fi genre. By the end of the film, there may be a few questions left unanswered but overall, Annihilation has a very strong story that genuinely feels fresh, smart and continually interesting.
The film has a small cast, only really made up of five or six main characters, and they’re all fine performers but in all honesty, the characters themselves could’ve been better because they’re only given very brief backstories and aren’t fully fleshed out or developed enough throughout the film. In the case of Natalie Portman’s character, she’s a soldier/scientist dealing with a fair amount of grief and guilt who takes it upon herself to join the team and to find out what happened to her husband, but while Portman gives a strong enough performance, her character, like a few of the others, is too much of a blank slate (the “dealing with hidden trauma” side of her character is surely something we’ve all seen before) and overall, I believe that the characters should’ve been given more depth because as it stands, they’re almost engulfed by the overwhelming visuals and bold storyline, not standing out as well as they could have.
It is a female-led film though, so that’s a point of considerable note, and the central quintet of Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Nuvotny is always great to watch. In particular, Gina Rodriguez is believably tough and badass, getting to descend into paranoia and madness as the film progresses, and Tessa Thompson takes on a role that’s very different to anything that she’s done before as the intelligent physicist Radek, getting a character exit which is creepily unsettling, spooky and unnerving.
Plus, this film features Ex Machina alumni Oscar Isaac and Sonoya Mizuno and that’s just awesome to know. Unfortunately though, they don’t get to perform any legendary disco dancing in this one . . .