Annihilation (2018)

Written & Directed by Alex Garland

I wasn’t planning on writing a review of this film, as I would not have the opportunity to have it posted in sync with the film’s release in theaters. I figured my post-release review would be a bit of a whisper against the noise after the film’s release. However, after catching a Tuesday night screening of this film, a screening which was surprisingly full (though perhaps not given it was bargain day at the theater), I felt compelled to jot my thoughts down in a review, if for no other reason than as an exercise for my own purposes. To start, see this movie while you still can if you want to. It is not only a great movie (for reasons I will hopefully articulate later), but it should also prove to be a divisive one given its ambiguity and subject matter. Paramount lobbied for an altered version after it tested poorly with test audiences. Writer/director Alex Garland refused, which means Annihilation is only seeing theatrical release in North America, and it will find its way quickly out of theaters.

I would love to talk more about the politics surrounding this film. The rift between Garland and Paramount and the subsequent release consequences. But all I really want to say is that I am positive that 90% of the people in my theater probably fall somewhere on the scale between disliked and hated this movie. I don’t entirely blame them, really I don’t. In fact, I found Annihilation to be a bit like this year’s version of mother!, only to a slightly lesser degree. mother!, for those who will remember, was also released by Paramount and bombed at the box office, for good reasons. While it’s a film I loved, it is completely batshit crazy and not made for mass public consumption. The box office results and “buzz” around the film prove that. Now, Annihilation is a tamer version of that, but it’ll be gone before you know it, and while critics are largely praising Garland’s sophomore effort, audiences will likely be put off by its musings.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology professor at Johns Hopkins. Married to a soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac), whom she met while also in the military, Lena is frustrated by his long tours of duty. After Kane goes missing, presumed dead on his last mission, Lena is shocked when he returns home after a year, apparently dying of a mysterious ailment. Lena is soon taken by the government, who explains that Kane, as well as numerous other military expeditions, have entered into a mysterious zone called the Shimmer in an attempt to find its origins. Fighting her own demons, and motivated to find a cure for her husband, Lena joins fellow scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny) on a journey into the Shimmer.

It would be hard to write a well thought out and intelligent review of this film without including a few spoilers. And while I will do my best to avoid them, if Annihilation is a film you wish to see with a clean slate, which I would suggest you do, perhaps stopping here would be prudent. Alex Garland, whose directorial debut Ex Machina announced him as a major name in the world of sci-fi, was already an accomplished screenwriter within the genre (28 Days Later…, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go). So with what he is able to accomplish here with Annihilation only solidifies himself as perhaps the most promising filmmaker working in science fiction. What Garland does is not more grand, or even more sophisticated than his contemporaries, they’re simply more fully realized. Garland proves himself a filmmaker in full control of his surrounding and narrative, even what appears on screen seems to be a little scatterbrained. Annihilation, after all, is not without its multiple “WTF” moments throughout, but to me, that only adds to its brilliance.

The best science fiction I have run across finds a way to bring the unbelievable, the truly remarkable and unearthly ideas back to humanity. The themes of a sci-fi film are often more human and real than anything a standard drama film can offer up. Certainly borrowing from other sci-fi greats (such as Tarkovsky’s Stalker and even Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), Garland weaves a story of introspection among an environment overflowing with the supernatural. Mutated, morphed flora and fauna. A shimmering force field which mirrors its inhabitants. Life within the shimmer, as without, is complex. It is at once beautiful and terrifying. We see others who have come before, and yet know not where we might be going, how things may end up. The unknown is terrifying. But as always, life finds a way, even as humanity’s complexities do everything they can to destroy.

This is a great ensemble performance form the cast, who happen to be all women (not counting Isaac whose role is much smaller). Natalie Portman is the star, as she should be and as her character takes center stage. Her curiosity and courage fuel the films motion forward. And while Lena’s struggle is the principle struggle, Garland pens, and the cast performs, the other characters with a depth not often seen in major movies. Leigh’s Dr. Ventress is perhaps the most checked out, but her character has her reasons. And while Thompson’s Josie might be the most underutilized, Thompson still shines, in particular in her characters one important scene. But the fact that this is a team of all women, I don’t know what to make of it, and I don’t think Garland has any ulterior motives in making it so other than to have people discuss it. This team is not framed as a “the men failed, now let’s try the women,” but rather as “the military failed, now let’s try the scientists.” So while an all-female cast can be seen as empowering (and it should be), the scenario does not play out like that, which is an important element in its empowering nature.

The film is a technical marvel. The colors don’t pop as much as they should, and the visual effects are muted, much the same way they are in Ex Machina in that they are used sparingly and only when most necessary. But the cinematography and visual effects are subtly beautiful. The sound design and the score are eerily perfect. Then there is the final 30 minutes of the film, which go off the rail just enough to be an incredibly surreal experience, and one which forced me to consider the themes of the film. I don’t think Garland feigns important in this film. I don’t think he thinks its a philosophical marvel. I don’t even think that, but Annihilation forced me to think throughout its run time, and well after I exited the theater. Much like it’s shimmer zone, the film forced me to look inward in an introspective manner.

The ambiguous ending is sure to frustrate many, and cause many others to disagree with what it might mean. I’m still grappling with that myself. However, what I took most from the film was self-destruction. Leigh’s Dr. Ventress opines “People confuse suicide with self-destruction. Very few people are suicidal, but all of us are self-destructive.” In forces his characters to look at themselves, as life is mirrored in the shimmer, they must deal with their other side, their self-destructive side, their side that is doing everything it can to destroy itself, and everything around that. I think this is a truth of humanity, and I appreciated Garland prompting me to think about it, to force myself to come to terms with my own self-destructive tenancies. Garland’s view of earth and humanity is that we are flawed, incomplete, yet beautiful and perfect in so many different ways. There is beauty to be found when one looks for it, while there is terror there too if one chooses to look for it instead. We all battle with ourselves first, and with each other second. Our imperfections are what make us human.

At this point, I could easily nitpick certain things in the film I disliked, or found lacking, of which there were very few, or very minor occurrences. Annihilation blew me away on first viewing, but I am hesitant to anoint it. Perhaps after subsequent viewings, I will feel more strongly one way or another in a conversation placing it among the best recent sci-fi films, or even the best sci-fi films of all time. The consideration is legitimate. But at the very least, Annihilatiois a great great film, and further proof that 2018 is starting off with a bang. It seems as though every movie that has a chance to be good, has been, and a few of those films have been fantastic! Hopefully the rest of the year will play out the same way. Hopefully Annihilation continues tumbling about in my mind, sticking with me as it has to this point, forcing me to reckon with its themes.

I have no idea what I’ve just rambled on about, as I’ve never written that much about a movie that easily, but I do know I really, really, really liked Annihilation.

★★★★ – Masterpiece

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