My favorite way to screen a film is by walking in knowing as little as possible about the movie. As a member of the press this is not an easy thing to do, considering studio representatives begin sending press announcements months in advance. With Annihilation, the newest offering from director and writer Alex Garland, I did my best to avoid the hype that precedes the release of films by beloved and critically acclaimed filmmakers. It wasn’t easy, because Garland does indeed deserve the buzz and admiration for his work. His first directorial effort Ex Machina is a fantastic science fiction thriller and earned him an Oscar nomination for his screenplay. His work as a writer includes the films Dredd, Never Let Me Go, Sunshine, and 28 Days Later, as well as the upcoming Halo, of which IMDB claims a whopping million dollars in salary. This is good news for Halo fans, as Garland has a talent for making far-out science fiction stories feel tangible and rich with relatable emotion.
Annihilation is a roller coaster of a film adapted from the popular novel by Jeff VanderMeer, and as such, the audience will experience a sophisticated complexity of emotions, with terror being chief amongst them. I will warn you that this film will strike fear deep into the heart of the audience, especially if you are the type that dives deep into the movie-going experience. Before I go further on this point, I also recommend that if you go see this movie, go to a theater that has a hardline against talking. Many of the scenes in Annihilation are challenging to watch and I can see how a nervous and chatty audience could ruin the visceral experience that Garland is going for. Also, don’t give money to theaters that allow talking. Seriously.
Back to this masterpiece of a film. And yes, I said masterpiece and I don’t say this lightly. This movie is beautiful as much as it is scary, with superb acting, visual effects, story, and sound design. Every moment is rich with subtext and power, moving the story without losing context or taking a cheap shortcut. It’s unflinching and brutal, as well as gorgeous and polished. If I were to criticize the film, I would say that it might be a bit too cerebral for the masses, but that’s more of a criticism of the audience. Much of the audience at my screening, who consisted of critics and fans of the book, were silently absorbed and gasping in terror together. However, a couple seated in front of me who were not press or fans, were clearly lost as they watched perhaps because they were too daft (I assume all people who talk in theaters are daft) and were easily confused by the lack of a paint-by-numbers plot. Annihilation is not bubblegum cinema, and Garland’s adaptation is not dumbed-down for easy digestion. I would call this intellectual horror. If you want spoon-fed exposition and overpaid studios shoving commercials down your throat, look elsewhere. This is a work of art, and an exploration of the dark possibilities of the universe.
Being mostly an adventure film, Annihilation is about a genetic biologist, Lena, played by Natalie Portman, who is shocked when her presumably dead husband, Kane, performed by Oscar Isaac, suddenly appears in her home a year after his deployment to a top secret military mission. Unfortunately, Kane arrives seriously ill, and the couple are whisked away to a military base outside a glowing translucent ring of energy known as The Shimmer. Lena learns that whatever is causing The Shimmer poses a serious threat to all of humanity and is the cause of her husband’s declining health. Fueled by a need to help her husband, she joins a group of highly-trained women in an exploratory field mission to uncover the mystery of the strange phenomenon in hopes of preventing an impending apocalypse. Since the previous all-male team was an immense failure, they try sending in women, and the team is led by Dr. Ventress, performed by Jennifer Jason Leigh. The team knows that the mission carries an almost zero chance of survival, and the motivating factors for each of the women to take the mission adds wonderful fodder for character development. I loved every character and was emotionally invested in their plight. Garland does a great job crafting relatable characters in a very efficient way that doesn’t seem rushed or stereotypical.
Adding brilliance to the story are the performances from the cast. Natalie Portman takes lead as Lena, who proves to not only an intellectual genius, but a highly trained bad-ass in the field. She is fantastic in this very physical and emotional role, conquering difficult scenes with gravitas and full commitment. Playing off her energy beautifully, is Jennifer Jason Leigh as the stony Dr. Ventress. Leigh harnesses an amazing range as an actress. Dr. Ventress is the polar opposite from the wild outlaw Daisy that earned her many award nominations for best supporting actress in The Hateful Eight. She is just as affecting, but in such a different way here. Also notable is the rest of the female team cast including Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok), Tuva Novotny (Dag), and Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin). Benedict Wong also lends his star power to the cast, but his role is more passive and more of a vehicle for Lena’s character.
All technical aspects are perfect, and the film relies on a lot of CGI for the story. It’s stunning work and seeing this movie in a theater with solid hi-def will enhance the experience in a way I can’t recommend enough. The digital work is seamless and better than most. This is an absolute necessity for the movie as two of the most terrifying scenes rely on CGI for maximum effect and they don’t disappoint. Another pivotal technology that comes through in full force is the sound design. I expect a lot of award nominations for this film and its technical aspects come first to mind as well as screenplay. The final climactic sequences hinge fully on the digital aspects and sound design for impact and the film pulls it off beautifully. Where other movies lose power and profundity in a CGI finish, this one sucker punches the audience into a state of awe. Fabulous work!
Challenging and electrifying, Annihilation is a phenomenal work of art. It is not for the faint of heart, nor for those who want cheap thrills. A brutal sci-fi adventure, this movie delivers on many fronts with an incredible cast and script. Buckle your seat belts and hang on to your popcorn for a truly unique and ground-breaking cinematic experience!
Thanks for reading,
The Diva Del Mar