by Daniel O’Connell
Alex Garland has had a successful and interesting career. He began by writing several films, which included 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and the underrated Dredd. In 2015, he made his directorial debut with Ex Machina, a science fiction film which explores the relationship between man and artificial intelligence. Now he scores another hit with his film Annihilation, loosely adapted from the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer (which Is the first book in his Southern Reach trilogy).
Annihilation follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a former soldier turned biologist, whose husband, a soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac, who previously starred in Ex Machina), has been missing for a year after leaving for a military assignment. One day, Kane suddenly comes home without warning. However, he immediately becomes ill and falls into a coma. Lena and Kane are taken to a research compound where she is informed by a psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that Kane was part of the many research teams that went into a quarantined area known as “Area X” or “the Shimmer”. Kane is one of the first people from the research teams to have returned from the Shimmer. Lena joins the latest expedition, which includes Dr. Ventress, physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and surveyor Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) – in hopes of finding a way to heal her husband.
Though marketed as a standard sci-fi horror film, Annihilation is more akin to Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker. Both films involve a journey into an abandoned area that has its origin in a meteorite crashing into the area. Annihilation also shows its influence Stalker had on it through its use of surrealism. The movie is told out of chronological order, with the initial framing device being Lena being interviewed by a scientist about her time in the Shimmer. The sense of time within the Shimmer is skewed, as the film jumps from the team initially entering it to them waking up at camp. They discuss that the last thing they remember is entering the Shimmer. They don’t remember setting up camp and discover they have gone through four days of rations. The jump cuts in the film serve to show that Lena has gaps in her memory from being in the Shimmer and does not know long she has been in it. The way the film is presented, combined with its slow, methodical pace and unnerving atmosphere makes for a surreal and engaging film.
Annihilation also provides more standard horror in addition to its surrealism. Most notable is a scene where the research team watches a video left recorded by the previous team. In it, one of the members is willingly vivisected to reveal that his insides are now home to eel-sized worms writhing around inside. The quiet nature of the scene, as well as the fact that it is ambiguous whether the previous team went insane or not makes it all the more scary.
The cast that Alex Garland has assembled brings some pretty great performances to the table. Natalie Portman, as usual, gives an excellent and engaging performance as Lena, as does Jennifer Jason Leigh. However, a standout performance goes to Gina Rodriguez as Anya, who, as the group goes deeper into the Shimmer, becomes more insane and paranoid. She becomes as much a threat to the group as the mutated creatures that dwell within the Shimmer.
Visuals and effects
Many effects were used to create the appearance of the Shimmer, and all of them are excellent. The oily, rainbow-esque miasma that surrounds the Shimmer and serves as its barrier is mesmerizing. The designs of the Shimmer’s mutated creatures are top-notch as well, which range from a pale crocodile with shark-like rows of teeth and deer who have branch-like antlers complete with blooming flowers. However, the standout creature of the film would have to be a mutated bear with a skull for its head. Without going into spoilers, it provides one of the most tense and scary parts of the film.
The beautiful visuals also extend to its flora, from colorful moss growth on concrete walls to vines that grow flowers of multiple shapes and colors. The most visually impressive of these are at the edge of the Shimmer, where crystal formations in the shape of trees grow on a beach.
The visuals are only one part of the film that makes it so engaging. Special credit should go to the cinematography by Rob Hardy, which makes the film incredible to look at. The film’s score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow adds to the unnerving, surreal nature of the film, including an unsettling, alien-sounding five notes, which serves as the film’s musical theme for the Shimmer itself.
However, in spite of its brilliant visuals, fantastic performances, and surreal, unnerving atmosphere, Annihilation is not a movie for everyone. After seeing the movie, you might have trouble trying to figure out your thoughts on the movie and also still have questions about it. Similar to Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, Annihilation is a movie that needs a second or third viewing to understand the movie and notice things that you would not notice before.
Image: Omaha World-Herald
'Annihilation' is a surreal yet excellent experience, with its strengths being excellent performances by the cast, beautiful visuals, and unnerving atmosphere. However, it is also not a movie for the average moviegoer and requires another viewing to get a better understanding of it. All in all, it is another success for Alex Garland.