Synopsis – A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.
My Take – It’s sad to see how film studios are now willing to bet more on sequels and reboots than working on an original science fiction film, well unless of course it’s helmed a director who has well proven himself. Which makes it quite surprising that how Paramount based on a few test reactions decided to sell the international rights for this much in news film to Netflix in order to recoup some of the costs of an already low-budget picture as far as major studio sci-fi flicks go also considering this new science fiction horror flick comes from writer/director Alex Garland, who also performed both duties on the excellent Ex Machina and has written some fantastic films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine. It’s really disappointing as here in his sophomore effort as a director, Alex Garland has brought a film metaphysical sci-fi that is even more ambitious and more amazing than his previous outing, especially considering how thoughtful and visually awing the 2014 film was. Based on Jeff VanderMeer‘s novel of the same name this is a highly artistic masterpiece that generates so much wonder in its 155 minute run time that it feels like its bursting at its seams and makes every other film that has come out in last several years feel diminutive in comparison. While his last film Ex Machina felt like it was grounded in our reality with how the technology was presented, here director Garland transports us out of the plausible and moves us into a chaotic hybrid of a dream and nightmare. In vein of recent successful science-fiction films Interstellar, Arrival, and Blade Runner 2049, director Garland has created a film that combines unusual, imaginative visuals, ideas, and sounds with more traditional audience-aimed thrills.
The story follows Lena (Natalie Portman), an ex-military woman turned biologist, who has been struggling with the disappearance of her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who went on a secret mission with much information. But when Kane suddenly reappears, much to the desperate relief of Lena, but for some reason he doesn’t remember where he’s been or how he got home. However, when she is on her way to rush him to the hospital, they are intercepted by government agents who take them to a secret area which lies into a mysterious and expanding extraterrestrial entity known as the Shimmer that seems to transform, mutate and copy its natural environment. The same zone from which other than Kane, no one has returned from. With a new team led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), cold-hearted psychiatrist, heading into the Shimmer to research its origin, Lena curious about Kane’s illness, joins the calm and shy physicist Radek (Tessa Thompson), the tough, confident medic Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) and the kind-hearted Shephard (Tuva Novotny). Things of course don’t go as planned. Sure, the premise of an alien/unknown environment and its effect on the explorers who try to fathom its mysteries is really nothing new and films like 2001:A Space Odyssey, Event Horizon, Sphere, Interstellar and Arrival are but a few of the examples pertaining to this sub-genre. However, the beauty of this trope is that if properly utilized, it can really make for an engaging watch as we watch the onscreen explorers in a closed environment make sense of the weird events and get a payoff when the final clue is revealed as to the mysterious entity’s origin and purpose. This film too begins by grounding us in the relationship between husband and wife, and then takes us on a frightening journey of self discovery, renewed purpose and utter madness. The film delivers sublime, alien-triggered variations of plant and animal DNA that are stunning and imaginative. What is the purpose of the alien species here? Are the aliens benign, or will their DNA “refraction” destroy earth’s biosphere? Unlike most science fiction films, this one is less focused on climactic battles, instead heading toward a far more poetic, surreal ending. The shape of the film is nothing short of brilliant, with a linear, minimalist starting point that consists of simple, straightforward images (like a lighthouse). While it can be a slow moving film at times, its methodical pace plays into the epicness of the ending in my opinion. Experimentive in nature and sentimental in emotion, this is not meant to be a cohesive film; moreover it is an abstract tip-toe into the art of science-fiction. Indeed, the story is excellently-paced and moves quickly after being gripped instantly by one of the opening shots. The set-up to the film perfectly balances the mystery surrounding this bubble-like layer called The Shimmer and the confusion of what happened to lead to a specific scene. We are told just enough to not lose interest in what’s happening, but not enough to be able to predict what will happen next.
This allows director Garland to brilliantly keep viewers on the edge of their seats during scenes that would have been too comfortable and enjoyable had the suspense and intrigue not been built up so effectively. The film is all about being a true Sci-Fi adventure. An unending suspense hovers over the air, the tension always mounting at what lies within the glades of this weird dimension. The mystery of what is causing this continues to build across the course of the film, as well as if our heroes will make it to find the answer. The film’s threats do exist outside, but even direr is the psychological warfare the Shimmer plays on our girls. Disturbing imagery is only one assault to their psyches, as they are pushed from all fronts to confront whatever it is eating them inside. And in addition to bringing suspense, the characters get some major development, shelling out their background information and helping them adapt to the ever-changing world around them. This culmination is very entertaining and truly worthy of the sci-fi mantle in terms of plot. Ultimately though, the medal of success should go to director Garland whose direction is the main event of the film. The switching between current and past events helps to show the surrealistic nature of the explorers’ situations. The clash of beauty and darkness is strikingly clear, especially when it comes to the emaciated bear that stalks them, which was possibly the tensest scene of the film. I also liked how none of the characters in the expedition to Area X were overly clichéd and that the dialogues felt very natural. Every character interaction and every flashback serves to strengthen the narrative and explore some of the film’s more underlying themes. Despite the rich alien beauty and richness of the shimmer, the film, from start to finish is very dark and gloomy; with the first act slowly taking it’s time to build up an uneasy atmosphere of suspense and dread. For viewers with shorter attention spans it might come off as a little too depressing or even boring, but once the team goes into the shimmer, the film finally starts to pick up pace and remains visually and emotionally satisfying all the way up to the film’s climax. There is plenty of eye-candy to be had, but don’t let the visuals fool you, there are still terrifying things to be experienced in the shimmer and if you let your guard down too much, you might end up regretting it when you least expect it. If you weren’t engaged in the story, the visuals will keep your eyes glued to the screen. The cinematography and lighting of scenes that take place in The Shimmer are well-composed and beautiful. The world within the Shimmer is a place that feels haunting, alien but beautiful thanks to director Garland‘s film crew including production designer Mark Rigby, cinematographer Rob Hardy and a creepy, alien-sounding score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salibury. Talking about the performances, director Alex Garland has gathered a talented bunch of female players to round out his case. While he had crafted a strong female lead in Alicia Vikander’s Ava in his debut feature, here too he manages to keep his female characters strong and the film’s casting helps. Led by Oscar winner Natalie Portman who yet again delivers a staggering performance as a scientist with secrets, and her character’s arc is equally determined by both her human nature and her surroundings. Here, Portman dives headfirst into the character of Lena, providing clear focus and a strong sense of purpose as the film’s protagonist. The story unfolds through her experiences, and she carries the role with frightening intensity. I’ve always been a fan of her in pretty much any dramatic role and this one was no exception. That being said, she’s not the only one who shines here. Jennifer Jason Leigh also does a wonderful job, fresh off her note worthy performance in Twin Peaks: The Return, followed closely by Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Tessa Thompson, each of whom who seemed to have their time to shine. Benedict Wong and Oscar Isaac are good too in smaller roles. On the whole, ‘Annihilation’ is a science fiction masterpiece that works as a perfect amalgamation of experimental storytelling, visual extravaganza, strong performances and intelligent direction.
Directed – Alex Garland
Rated – R
Run Time – 155 minutes