A biologist's husband disappears. She puts her name forward for an expedition into an environmental disaster zone, but does not find what she's expecting. The expedition team is made up of the biologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, a surveyor, and a linguist.
Jeff VanderMeer (novel)
Jennifer Jason Leigh
It ain’t for the weak of mind or the faint of heart.
Annihilation is the new film from writer/director Alex Garland (Ex Machina), based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer.
At times esoteric, sometimes terrifying and even dipping into full-on “trippy” territory, the film is definitely a do-not-miss.
Some unidentified force, simply called “The Shimmer” has taken hold somewhere on the coast of the US. And it’s spreading – basically destroying everything in its path. A group of female scientists will be the latest of several investigatory groups to cross the threshold of this strange anomaly – to find answers and hopefully find out what happened to the previous souls who entered… and never returned. Lena (Oscar-winner Natalie Portman) heads the group – using her biology expertise and military training to help her and her group along the way. They must reach a remote lighthouse far into “The Shimmer”, where they believe this disturbance began.
Immediate comparisons will be made to the recent Oscar-nominated Arrival. Annihilation has a tone of uncertainty, apprehension and anticipation; as well as the promise of something larger than humanity at play – like Dennis Villeneuve’s 2016 piece. But a minor detour as far as character detail – something which I found inspired – was to have the lead character in Annihilation be not only a scientist, but an adept 7-year military veteran.
There is also the comparison between the two film’s scores. It’s not constant, but during the climax of Annihilation – there are some music cues very reminiscent of the music from Arrival – read: unnerving and non-traditional. And these choices perfectly suit what’s happening on-screen.
And the moment when the characters first move into “The Shimmer”, you’ll also be reminded of Roland Emmerich’s Stargate.
There’s something special in the fact that this is a female-led cast – all five of the personalities we follow are females, and so the film has a distinct girl-power vibe. And the story allows for little to no mercy because of the sex of the characters. This felt fresh and frankly, their sex (other than a quite flimsy reason for Lena’s “I have to do this” mentality) wasn’t ever of particular consequence. They were just the right persons for the job.
Every performance is great, and each of the five leads gets a few good moments to shine. Of course, Portman delivers her usual greatness (I would have expected nothing less), and I can never not perk up when Jennifer Jason Leigh (I’m a longtime fan) pops up in a new film project. Her work in Annihilation is subdued and nuanced, and a very late-in-the-game revelation about her character – Dr. Ventress – offers up even more intrigue. I really want to know more about Ventress’ situation/history, and that’s a credit to not only the writing, but to Leigh’s always superior acting work.
However, I was most impressed with the work of Gina Rodriguez – known for her Golden Globe-winning work on television’s Jane the Virgin. Her performance feels like something of a revelation – taking a cue from Jenette Goldstein’s “Vasquez” in Aliens – and aside from Portman, she gets the most chance of anyone to really emote as her character. Her moments inside the house (there’s an abandoned township within “The Shimmer”) are easy highlights.
There’s a wonderful moment of restraint in the resolution for one of the women (Josie, played by Thor: Ragnarok’s Tessa Thompson) – which I found remarkable. Upon further thought – my initial idea of “they should have shown more” – has diminished. And what we get (or don’t get) as far as Josie’s situation – so smart, so intriguing and so respectful toward the character. I don’t know why that choice by the filmmakers has stuck with me, but it’s a lovely moment in the film.
The film slyly sets up two very different possibilities about what “The Shimmer” actually is – right at the outset. And while there is room for interpretation, depending on where you’re coming from, many clues in dialogue throughout – offer up a more potent choice for what is actually going on. But of course, both choices for what “The Shimmer” is – well, the answer could be an intriguing combination.
With that, the film is highly esoteric – and while there is plenty of breathtaking action, many of the ideas introduced are awfully high-brow. Of course, the trailer highlights the more action-packed moments, but these are only a small part of the film’s structure. Annihilation makes you think.
This film doesn’t let you off of the hook when the end credits roll. There are questions which remain unanswered, out-there ideas sticking like glue in the halls of your brain and images which will continue to delight and disturb.
Visually, I was reminded of a more toned down version of What Dreams May Come. Everything has a surreal, dreamlike quality – even when the characters are in what appears to be run-of-the-mill swampland. In the nooks and crannies of these shots – you’ll see small details which support the fact that things inside of “The Shimmer” are constantly shifting and changing. And when the film reaches its stunning climax, the effects artists take center stage – and that is where the earlier term of “trippy” comes into play. It’s not an abbreviated sequence either, and you’ll be stunned into silence by an extended and masterful bit of mime-work. Expect Oscar consideration for the visual effects, come next year.
There’s a sequence somewhere at the film’s midpoint, which left me truly disturbed. The group has encountered a bear-like creature one night, but there’s something particularly strange about this mutated monstrosity. And once that unique difference is clear – you’ll be left as off-kilter as I was. There was something deeply primal about my reaction to this scene – and despite plenty of memorable moments throughout the film, nothing will stick with me as this one will.
There’s no doubt that I’ll seek out the book (the first in a series called the Southern Reach Trilogy) for further description and/or possible answers. The last moments in the film make it quite clear what has happened, but we are left with an overwhelming anticipation and mounting questions of “Why?” and “Who?”.
With a strong, female-led cast, enough atmosphere to choke a mutated alligator, visual effects to envy and plenty of appetizing questions to ponder for days to come – Annihilation is a winner.
The film is now playing in theatres everywhere.