Now that’s how you science!
After initially making his mark as a screenwriter, Alex Garland made a major splash with his 2015 directorial debut, Ex Machina, which was one of the better cerebral sci-fi films made in recent years. Garland’s follow up to that is Annihilation, based on the Jeff VanderMeer book of the same name. Now it’s time to see if Garland can conjure the same sci-fi magic with Natalie Portman that he did with Alicia Vikander.
Biologist and ex-soldier Lena (Portman) is mourning the disappearance, and presumed death, of her husband Kane (Oscar Issac), an Army Special Forces solider that left on a classified mission approximately a year earlier and never returned. One night, Kane suddenly shows up, initially looking none the worse for wear but unable to offer any specifics of where he went or what he did.
Before long, Kane falls ill, and while being transported to the hospital the two of them are intercepted by U.S. military forces. When Lena regains consciousness, she’s brought up to speed on some of the events: an anomaly of unknown origin, nicknamed “the shimmer,” appeared on Earth and has been spreading. The military has sent several teams inside to investigate, but only one person has ever come back, the now-comatose (and dying) Kane.
Fearing for her husband’s life and wanting to help him, Lena decides to join a female-only expedition into the shimmer with team leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and three others. Upon entering they’re completely disoriented, having no memory of how they arrived or how long they’ve already been there. They resolve to press on in an attempt to reach the centre of the outbreak and unravel just what humanity is dealing with.
Much like Ex Machina, Annihilation is science fiction tinged with plenty of realism, and as it turns out that familiarity makes the differences all the more unsettling. This is still Earth, and not some crazy futuristic dystopian version, either. The technology, the characters, the location, all of it is immediately recognizable and relatable, and that serves to ground the more fantastic elements in a sense of reality.
There are very few characters in the movie — the five-woman team, Kane, a couple of other small parts and that’s it — which helps keep things focused. Everyone is given something to do, and some reasoning for why they do it, and the performances are strong across the board. Portman does good work as the lead with Leigh and Gina Rodriguez delivering in supporting roles.
Visually, the film is very interesting. The shimmer’s mutating effect on plants and wildlife make for some really cool (and also disturbing) moments. Focusing on the former for the moment, the plants that grow and flower to look like humans are awesome, and the way the filmmakers used CGI in conjunction with real scenery is very well done.
Despite being best classified as science fiction, Annihilation contains some of the creepiest and most haunting scenes we’ve seen in a long time. The team’s encounter with the alligator, as well as when they watch the contents of a flash drive, definitely fit the bill, but it’s the mutated bear that delivers the nightmares. Holy shit.
We thoroughly enjoyed the movie, so our issues amount to nitpicks. We weren’t always enamoured with the soundtrack, particularly earlier in the movie, but it also had some really excellent moments. We also could’ve gone for a little more clarity and less ambiguity in the final act so that what actually happened was more obvious. It felt formulaic in a film that’s decidedly non-traditional in so many other ways.
THE BONUS FEATURES
Annihilation has a six-pack of featurettes included that stretch for more than an hour. They’re all given cryptic names — such as “Shimmer” or “Unfathomable Mind” — but what’s presented is pretty standard stuff. You’ll get expanded introductions to the characters, discussions about the science behind the fiction, turning the book into a movie and so on. The film has some pretty interesting ideas, so expanding on them has some appeal, but it’s a largely pedestrian set of extras.
Science fiction with a disturbing twist, Annihilation stands out with its practical approach to world building, strong acting and plenty of memorable moments. It’s really well done.