Annihilation Promotional Poster
In the past few years, the science-fiction genre has had quite the revival in film and television. While there are always low-grade action films set in space or B-movie thrillers involving contagious viruses, as of late there have been many sci-fi films that have reminded viewers the true purpose of the genre: to explore humanity. There have been many recent intellectual masterpieces in the genre, including Spike Jonze’s Her, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, and both of Denis Villenueuve’s past two films, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. All of these films have lots of dazzling technology heavily integrated into the plot, but are also more focused on deep character exploration and raising questions about human nature rather than creating cheap thrills and action set pieces.
Continuing this trend since the 2000’s, veteran science-fiction screenwriter Alex Garland returns to the director’s chair for Annihilation, the follow-up to his directorial debut Ex Machina. The film follows Natalie Portman’s Lena, a veteran turned biology professor, who joins a team of female scientists to investigate the Shimmer. The Shimmer is eventually revealed to be a mysterious force that has taken over part of “Area X,” an area closed off by the government. Many groups of people, including soldiers and government agents, have ventured into the Shimmer hoping for answers about the phenomenon with only one person coming back alive: Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). With Kane in critical condition since mysteriously reappearing, he had seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth, Lena joins a team of female scientists to uncover the truth. This aspect of the film was incredibly refreshing, especially in the #MeToo era. While many stories like this would feature men in the military battling otherworldly creatures, Annihilation tells a more meditative story with a tremendous female-led cast, while still bringing the thrills expected from a science-fiction/horror film. The film combines intellectually and thematically stimulating moments with incredible special effects, great filmmaking, and some of the tensest and scariest moments captured on film this year.
Straddling the line between more mainstream and arthouse cinema, Annihilation maintains a patient pace throughout the runtime, slowly revealing information and the secrets of the Shimmer. Like his other work, Garland is careful not to spoon-feed information to the audience or make the themes of the film too overt. Much of the message of the film, as well as the ending, is left up for audience interpretation. For that reason, the movie is sure to remain on your mind long after the credits roll. That being said, this film is likely not for everyone, evident in its poor showing at the box office. The film can be much more interested in ideas and creating an atmosphere than the advancement of plot. While some moviegoers may enjoy this experience, other may shy away from it.
Ultimately, the film does reward those who stay invested in the film. Garland continues to display his brilliant handle of visual effects. Once the film moves into the Shimmer, Garland dazzles with his visuals. The environment is both beautiful and foreboding. Garland also successfully creates an almost dream-like state through the colorful cinematography, the use of flashbacks, the structure of the film, and the unclear passing of time. The director certainly succeeds in placing the audience in the environment of the characters and creating an affecting mood. The final moments in particular are especially riveting. Without giving anything away, the last twenty minutes are almost entirely without dialogue, relying on Natalie Portman’s excellent performance and raw visual filmmaking. The result is a sequence that is both unsettling and awe-inducing, qualities that certainly call back to Kubrick and his sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.
On the topic of the ending, it is left purposely vague. It is notable that Garland very loosely adapted Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name for the film. While VanderMeer’s novel is the first in a trilogy, Garland has come forth and said that he has no plans for any sequels to the film and did not even read the book’s sequels, which shows in his adaption of the novel. Reports say that Garland only read the novel once before adapting it for the screen, while also taking many liberties with the plot, characters, the specifics of the Shimmer, and especially the ending. As someone who has not read the books, I was able to fully enjoy Garland’s work at face value, but fans of VanderMeer’s work should be warned not to expect a faithful adaptation.