Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac
Suspenseful dramas based around fear of the unknown are certainly nothing new, but if anyone is going to tackle such subject matter and at least attempt to put a new spin on it, it’s Alex Garland. Annihilation proffers a lot of the standard hint-dropping and sound cues to signify something is awry, but does Garland’s latest opinion-splitting sci-fi bring anything fresh to make it worth the watch, or is it just another Alien wannabe?
Annihilation sees biologist and ex-soldier Lena (Portman) unintentionally take part in an expedition, led by Dr. Ventress (Jason Leigh), into the ‘shimmer’, a strange electro-magnetic barrier that has arisen after an ever-ambiguous ‘something’ fell from space in an area that has been evacuated under the pretence of a chemical leak. The shimmer appears to be expanding, taking more and more land into its great unknown. Lena’s reason for joining the expedition is to find out what happened to her fatally ill husband, Kane (Isaac), the only survivor of the previous expedition into the shimmer.
Following on from the recently released The Cloverfield Paradox, Annihilation is Netflix’s latest purchase from Paramount (after somewhat artistic differences drove Paramount to create a distribution deal). Despite having a cinematic release in both the US and China, it is expected to hit more audiences via the ever-popular streaming service. This is both a blessing and a curse for the film: yes, it will receive a wider audience, but it is detrimental and almost insulting to the sound and cinematography of the film, both of which have been wonderfully and artistically created and brought together in a symphony of picture and sound. Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score is highly reminiscent of the late great Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Golden Globe-nominated score in Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 critically acclaimed alien-based film Arrival, a film that is very similar in its story and themes. Not so similar though that Annihilation doesn’t stand out of its own accord, thanks in large part to DoP Rob Hardy, his eye for scale ever-apparent throughout, ranging from wide shots that show off some of the beauty of the fictional world, to silhouetted profile shots that enhance already ominous scenes.
The production design is also one on its own. Many of the film’s sets are extremely reminiscent of and owe a debt to the likes of Alien and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, and the creature designs are clearly well thought out. Garland has not shied away from gore and horror, which in a strangely sadistic way was pleasant to see. Without the extent of the art the story may not have had such a strong impact on the fear theme that it plays on. Many films rely on the score and clever cinematography to suggest something to be afraid of, but to also have something given to us in such a visually blatant way is refreshing. For example, upon the death of a character, their voice is used in a mutated creature that looks and sounds absolutely terrifying, as though the character is still alive in some way and is hopelessly trapped and in pain, almost like John Carpenter’s The Thing. If that doesn’t put the fear of god into a person, not a lot else will.
The performances are, overall, decent enough. Portman is, well, Portman, albeit a little more monotonous and dead inside than usual (but that isn’t down to acting ability, it is purely her character). She has moments of being able to show off her well-known emotional range, but thanks to Lena’s journey, Portman can only provide so much in her performance. Jason Leigh makes for a fantastic leader through her Dr. Ventress character – the whole way through she makes you feel like she’s hiding something (standard) but you don’t really want to know what it is. To have an entirely female lead cast is another invigorating aspect of the film, and something it has thusfar been underpraised for, which is unusual in the current climate of gender politics. It is almost unnoticeable though, that the cast is predominantly female, in a good way – we are starting to see more female-led movies, and by and by this will become the norm, and hopefully the debate lessens as equality prevails.
Garland isn’t one to shy away from brain-busting screenplays or plots based around exploring the unknown. From Sunshine and Never Let Me Go to 28 Days Later and Ex Machina, Garland’s films have been fairly hit and miss. 28 Days Later found its audience when they didn’t quite yet know how much they wanted zombie movies; Ex Machina was full of good ideas that were either poorly explored or not explored at all; Annihilation is Garland’s redemption after Ex Machina, exploring and expanding ideas, and has an established audience in suspense-drama fans. Even horror fans will enjoy later aspects of the film, and those who enjoy stories about unconventional aliens and beings visiting Earth for a purpose unknown will find entertainment here. It’s also got something for the audiences who enjoy something more mentally challenging. Garland’s screenplay was originally thought to be too cerebral and needed to be dumbed down, essentially. It’s about time the movie studios, financiers and distributors stopped patronising moviegoers. To use this as one of many reasons to pull a film from international cinematic release is pretty offensive to the public. We should be the ones to decide if a film is too difficult to comprehend (do they actually listen to test-audiences?). Annihilation is certainly no Interstellar in its complexity, but neither is it spoon-fed to us. We’re given what we need to understand and be entertained at the same time, and surely that can only make for a decent film.
The mix of eerie sound, menacing cinematography and experienced direction all together create something that absolutely feels fresh in its execution if not completely original in story. With moments that strike the fear of Hitchcock into an audience whilst providing a yearning to understand what is going on, there’s a balance that not all films of this genre are able to find, that of being afraid but needing, almost wanting, to continue, a feeling that emanates from Portman’s character. It’s a credit to Portman as an actress that she is almost able to reach through the screen and pull you into her character’s head, even if we’re not entirely sure by the end who that head actually belongs to. Cue “to be continued” end-title card…