Annihilation review: A look at Alex Garland’s direct-to-Netflix (in the UK and some other territories) feature – a pure-hit of sci-fi and one hell of a trip.
Annihilation review by Andrew Gaudion.
Another month, another big sci-fi release from Netflix. Where January saw the release of the fumbled The Cloverfield Paradox and last month brought with it the crushing disappointment of Mute, March sees the highly anticipated release of Alex ‘Ex Machina’ Garland’s new directorial effort, Annihilation. Striped of its international cinema release by Paramount Studios due to worries that it was too cerebral for audiences, Annihilation (based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer) comes to Netflix on more of a positive wave of critical reaction than the two sci-fi streaming flicks before it, two films which have done a great detriment to Netflix’s standing as a major film studio competitor, only enforcing the notion that the streaming service is becoming a dumping ground for doomed movies.
Annihilation is astronomically better than the two aforementioned films, which makes it an even greater shame that it cannot be experienced on the big screen, as it was clearly designed to be.
Natalie Portman plays Lena, a cellular biology professor and former solider. Her husband, Army Special Forces soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac), has been missing for 12-months after leaving to embark on a mysterious mission. When he inexplicably turns up with no memory of where he has been and becomes fatally ill, the pair are whisked off to a government facility in Florida. There, Lena soon discovers that her husband was part of a team that was investigating ‘Area X’, a bizarre shimmer like phenomenon that is expanding across the swampland, with Kane being the only person ever to return from entering. Determined to find out what happened to her husband, Lena volunteers to join the next team to enter Area X.
Related: Mute review
There is a great deal to unpack when it comes to Annihilation, so much so that you already get the sense that repeat viewings will be very rewarding in the years to come. Not only does it knowingly tread on the footsteps of many a sci-fi benchmark, it does so in a means to construct its own identity through using familiar genre conventions in the context of a story that explores of both the unknown and the self-destructive tendencies of human beings.
Annihilation poses questions about how individuals should negotiate with different levels of trauma, sorrow, regret and loss through the lens of this larger than life exploration into the unknowns of Area X. The team of five women who enter Area X with Lena all have their own baggage that makes them come to question who they are and who they have been, baggage that comes to manifest itself once they enter into the shimmer world of Area X, as all the women are forced to face greater unknowns than themselves.
Annihilation owes a lot to James Cameron’s Aliens and John Carpenter’s The Thing through the initial build up and moments of mounting tension. In moments of horror, Garland evokes the gnarly creatures of Alien and Predator and moments of body horror that wouldn’t be out of place in a Cronenberg film. In moments of awe, he looks to the startling visuals of Kubrick, the other worldly-ness of Tarkovsky and the eerie-ness of Johnathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. These familiar touchstones are used as a point of reference to gradually draw you into a world that feels familiar yet distorted, much like the shimmer world of Area X itself.
Through these knowing touches to works of genre both contemporary and classic, Annihilation can, on occasion, feel a little derivative. But it smartly uses these recognisable elements to present something that feels warped and always on the cusp of morphing into something else entirely. This is largely enforced through the exceptional production design. The world of Area X is endlessly spellbinding, bathed in bizarre splashes of colour and beauty that utilise the oft overused technique of lens flare creatively to characterise this perplexing region, all the while palpable danger lurks on the fringes, seemingly ready to pounce at any moment. The final act itself is an eye-widening spectacle that again feels both beautiful and menacing at the same time. It is an infinitely fascinating landscape to explore, almost enough so to make you think that you might well consider entering Area X yourself if faced with the opportunity.
Where Garland’s film suffers is within its dialogue. It seems strange that Paramount were worried about the film being too challenging for audiences as almost every moment of dialogue is used to explain what is going on or as a means of off-loading character exposition on the audience. While its larger themes are well articulated and applied in enough of a sophisticated manner to spark discussion, it is the characters themselves who don’t quite register. No one particularly talks like a human being as sophisticated dialogue between characters is often side-lined in favour of trying to ensure that the audience knows what is going on. It is a bizarre fault for the film to have, considering Garland’s last film Ex Machina managed to mix personality and expositional dialogue with considerable skill. Here, the dialogue feels more in service of narrative clarity than it does character building, which may well be the result of adapting a complex novel.
It helps that Garland has populated his film with exceptional actors. The main ensemble is comprised of the talented likes of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, the ever-welcome Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny and, of course Portman. It is Portman’s performance in particular that stands out. She adds a great deal of depth to Lena, putting in a performance which flows from stern to vulnerable, curious to cautious with subtle control and a strong command of the screen, adding more complexities to the character as she heads out on an exploration of both Area X and her own sense of guilt. It is yet another reminder of Portman’s exceptional talent as both a striking screen presence and as a performer.
Annihilation isn’t as complex as some would have led you to believe. It is a big-screen sci-fi in the vein of the bolder sci-fi movies of the 60’s and 70’s, and I emphasize the big-screen element. I was lucky enough to be able to watch the film on a projector at a friend’s house, but it is a shame that so many people won’t be able to experience the gorgeous visuals of Annihilation on a large format. It is a film that is designed to overwhelm you in terms of both its imagery and themes; cinema is deep within its DNA, and to rob it of its true home feels like a disservice. It is bizarre, nasty, awe-inspiring, frightening, occasionally a bit clunky, but all in all it is a sci-fi experience that enraptures you, throwing you into a world of great mystery, wonder and terror. A pure hit of hard sci-fi which provides one hell of a trip.
Annihilation review by Andrew Gaudion, March 2018.
Annihilation is now available on Netflix UK & Ireland.