Following up his acclaimed directorial debut ‘Ex Machina’, Alex Garland (who’d previously written ’28 Days Later’, ‘Sunshine’, ‘Dredd’ and others) got a chance to make a rare big-budget sci-fi film built as much on unsettling ideas as on CGI monsters.
Sadly, the realities of contemporary filmmaking being what they are, Paramount got wet feat about rolling it out after the studio’s twin filmmaker-focused box office failures of ‘mother!’ and ‘Downsizing’ last year. That’s a shame because ‘Annihilation’ is easily the best of the pack, a film beautiful enough to demand big screen exhibition and troubling enough to deliver hours of discomforting thought long after the hallucinatory end credits. Although it’s not as tightly-focused or delivered as ‘Ex Machina’, it’s not supposed to be. This is one of those brain-busting sci-fi head trips designed to keep you coming back to understand a little more each viewing. Sadly, most folks will wind up seeing it soon on Netflix rather than getting their hair blown back in a theater as intended.
The film begins with a mystery, which certainly doesn’t mean that it ends with answers. Natalie Portman plays Lena, a former soldier who now teaches biology at a university. Her husband (Oscar Isaac) is still in an elite military unit and has been missing for months. She’s depressed and distraught and things aren’t going to get better, even when her husband mysteriously returns with few memories of whom he is or where he’s been.
Lena is soon approached by a mysterious government agent named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who explains that her husband went missing on a mission entering a strange shimmering zone on the map that suddenly appeared and has perplexed scientists and government officials ever since. No one who enters returns (other than the mysterious Isaac) and the zone seems to be growing. Ventress asks Lena to join her on an all-female expedition into the zone. (Since all men seem to have mysteriously disappeared, they hope that a gender swap might make a difference.) Tagging along are a few other scientist/soldiers played by Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny. Once they enter this mysterious new world, time seems to melt away, memory is no longer trustworthy, and all the creatures they encounter appear to have either mutated or evolved.
That’s a hell of a setup for a sci-fi mindfuck and Garland is just getting started. Working from a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Garland is unapologetically ambitious with this bizarre and existential odyssey. The pace is slow and hypnotic. Logic is loose from the start and dissipates further from there. Themes are teased and prodded with increasing complexity. It’s a challenging film, no doubt about it. But it’s not without sensationalistic entertainment. While Garland might specialize in brainy cinematic sci-fi, he’s also an entertainer. In as much as ‘Annihilation’ is inspired by the intellectual genre twists of Andrei Tarkovsky (specifically ‘Stalker’ and ‘Solaris’), it’s also layered with the thoughtful B-movie thrills of John Carpenter (specifically ‘The Thing’). There are monsters in here and plenty of them – big scares, gag-worthy gore, subtle creep-outs, and even a little action too. It’s all in service of something higher-minded than a simply thriller. Garland provokes and prods without ever giving away so much that viewers can’t impose their own readings.
Performances are strong but deliberately muted. The film seems to take place in a universe without emotion, and that actually suits the dehumanizing themes. The visuals are as stunning as anything in Garland’s startlingly gorgeous ‘Ex Machina’, even pushed further through budget and conceptual ambition here.
At its core, ‘Annihilation’ is a film about the fear of evolution from the perspective of the species that are inevitably left behind. It’s both a crushing apocalyptic tale of humanity’s end and the beautiful start of something new. Garland’s returning design team that includes everyone from cinematographer Rob Hardy to production designer Mark Digby and concept artist/graphic novel icon Jock craft a new world as foreboding as it is beautiful. Nothing looks like conventional monsters or mutations. It’s all new and as glorious to behold as it is unsettling. The movie finds beauty in the grotesque and the grotesque in beauty until the two become indistinguishable. The film is both viscerally terrifying and disturbingly complex once you peel back all the onion layers. Genre sleaze meets art house pretentions, etc.
If ‘Ex Machina’ proved just timely enough in its analysis of age-old A.I. parables to find a fairly wide audience, ‘Annihilation’ will divide viewers. Some will watch in dumbstuck awe while others are bored lifeless. Some will consider it too shocking to be worthy of intellectual nourishment and others will find it too dull for excitement. All those opinions are valid and invalid. Alex Garland has crafted the sort of challenging big-budget and star-driven genre movie that so many claim to want, but it’s so genuinely brain-busting that many will check out and dismiss it rather than doing the work to finish thought process that the film starts.
Fair enough. Movies like ‘Annihilation’ aren’t for everybody. They’re for a small group of film and sci-fi nerds to obsess over endlessly. In that regard, it makes sense that Paramount wouldn’t want to invest too much into the wide release of a film destined to frustrate the audiences it courts. It’s just a shame that those who love this particular strain of hard sci-fi won’t get the chance to have their eyeholes tickled and their brains blown out in a movie theater. We need more of that.