Writer/Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac
There will always be a debate as to whether you should read the book first before seeing the movie. In the case of Annihilation, I have never read the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. I almost think that’s an advantage going into this movie, as I had no idea what to expect or where it was going. Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biology professor at Johns Hopkins University. It’s been a year since her husband, Kane (Isaac), went missing while serving in the military. One day he arrives home completely disoriented, unable to answer the questions she has for him. He starts having a medical emergency, but when they’re en route to the hospital, a convoy of police intercepts them. Once they arrive on a secretive compound, Lena and Kane are separated and kept in isolation. She proceeds to learn there is “a religious event, an extra-terrestrial event” going on. It’s called “The Shimmer” and it’s slowly growing and taking over Area X. Kane was part of a group of soldiers who dared go into The Shimmer. No man, animal, or drone has made it out alive, except for Kane. There are four women (Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tuva Novotny) attempting to go back in, and Lena requests to join them in hopes of figuring out what happened to Kane.
Annihilation is the latest from Alex Garland who received acclaimed for his film Ex Machina, also starring Oscar Isaac. He’s becoming a sought after auteur in the futuristic sci-fi genre given these two films as well as writing Danny Boyle’s films 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Annihilation continues to prove his staying power as it takes a strong vision to not let a film like this collapse under its own obscurity. It’s a real think piece from very early on when we see Kane mysteriously appear out of nowhere. It becomes apparent there’s a massive government conspiracy happening, which feels very X-Files like. The vagueness continues to widen once Lena starts to learn about The Shimmer. Garland wants the audience to feel as in the dark as Natalie Portman’s character. There’s a point when you realize that it doesn’t necessarily go in chronological order, which completely throws off what you think will happen next. The longer Lena and the other soldiers are in The Shimmer, the more questions arise for the characters and audience, and the film rarely gives concrete answers. You’re left constantly asking what happened before the women entered The Shimmer, what’s going to happen next, and who can you trust along the way.
For me, what was stunning is that The Shimmer is a place of full of puzzling contradictions. It’s thought of as this negative force killing off the human population, but inside, it’s full of rainbow hues and lush foliage as you find out that it’s regenerating life from inside. There are other moments when Garland keeps this place dark and frightful with just enough jump scares to really keep you on edge throughout. There’s an animal encounter that makes the bear attack in The Revenant look wimpy.
Much like Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, or even the more divisive Mother, it goes in some bizarre directions leaving it up to the viewer to bring their own religious background and environmental awareness to interpret what is going on. For some, it could be a religious allegory given its themes of survival and the eventual apocalypse. Garland could also be making a commentary on our never-ending hunger for knowledge, truth, and answers. We’re always looking for more and demanding more of others. Maybe he’s trying to claim our own greediness will be our own downfall as nothing is ever good enough. The lack of answers will no doubt frustrate half the audience. If you’re someone who needs a movie to make sense and be wrapped up in a pretty bow in the end, then Annihilation won’t be for you. Garland is most likely staying in tune with the book, but I applaud the openness and trust he has by leaving it up to the audience to interpret this material in whatever way they want. It’s the kind of risk more filmmakers and studios ought to be making.
Garland’ last film, Ex Machina, had a minimalistic approach given its three person cast. He’s certainly gone in the opposite direction with Annihilation taking on very complicated themes. Science Fiction always seems to work best when it goes all in with the mystery and intrigue that comes with the unknown. I never want the director to give me all the answers or rely on shock treatment to keep their film going. Garland sidesteps both of these. He utilizes some serious girl power with Portman leading the crew consisting of Jason Leigh, Rodriguez, Thompson, and Novotny each going into The Shimmer with their own skillset as actors and characters. We don’t often see this kind of film with little to no male counterpart along the way acting like some dumb hotshot. I left Annihilation with a flutter of questions that may or may not be answered upon second or third viewings. My head was spinning in the best kind of way wondering what I had just experienced. Isn’t that the way it should be when you leave a theater?
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? A polarizing film that may leave you with more questions than answers, but boy did I love it.
RATING: 4 out of 5 TICKET STUBS