Ever since Alex Garland’s brilliantly innovative film EX-MACHINA raised the bar for modern-day sci-fi films, I have been dying to see what he would come up with next. EX-MACHINA was my favorite film of 2015, and continues to be one of the first movies I recommend to friends looking for an interesting watch. Garland’s follow-up film, ANNIHILATION is an even weirder, riskier choice that will not disappoint those fans, like me, who see his exhilarating filmmaking style as a breath of fresh air to the science-fiction genre and Hollywood altogether.
Based on the first book from Jeff VanderMeer’s “Southern Reach Trilogy”, ANNIHILATION follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a cellular biologist, who has spent a year grieving her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), after he disappeared on a mysterious military mission. Unexpectedly, Kane appears back at their house, with little memory of who he is and where he has been during his time away. Not long after his return, Kane suffers major organ failure and, along with Lena, is taken to Area X, a clandestine government facility, for testing. There, Lena discovers that out of multiple expeditionary units that entered a disaster zone area known as “The Shimmer,” Kane is the only person to return. In order to get the answers that Lena believes could help save her husband, she volunteers to join an all-female expedition mission into The Shimmer with psychologist Dr. Vintress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), medic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), and geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny), which, by the looks of it, could be a suicide mission. Their goal is to explore the area and make it to the origin of the phenomena, a lighthouse, and return back to Area X with their findings. But of course, things aren’t going to be as easy as that.
Garland’s risk-taking decisions both in story and filmmaking are innovative and thrilling, especially for film lovers like me who see hundreds of movies each year. It’s movies like these that stick with me for days, and make me want to see it many times to unpack the multiple layers and themes reverberating throughout. Especially in the case of ANNIHILATION, I was struck by how often Garland circumvented choices that would appeal to mainstream audiences, and instead took risks that could put this film in a divisive position, beloved by cinephiles and cerebral moviegoers, while potentially being trashed by audience members who were hoping to turn their brains off and enjoy an INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS/ALIEN hybrid. However, the horror in ANNIHILATION doesn’t rest in hybrid monsters or aliens, but in displaying humanity’s inability to cope with grief or come to terms with the cellular connection between each other and our environment.
From ANNIHILATION’s gorgeous and creepy cinematography, to its pulsating, unnerving sound design, and edge-of-your-seat thrills, I was captivated throughout the entire 120 minute runtime. While I do wish Garland had given Lena’s team members a little more than Spice Girls-esque characterization — the serious one, the nerdy one, the sassy one, the expendable one — the movie is anchored by Natalie Portman’s emotionally complex performance. In what is probably my favorite performance of hers since BLACK SWAN, Portman takes her time to slowly peel back the layers and eventually get to the heart of her real purpose for engaging in such a dangerous mission.
Even when he is adapting stories from books, or leveraging famous cinematic scenes, Garland always finds a way to bring his own voice and point of view to his films. Whereas EX-MACHINA could have been compared to BLADE RUNNER and ANNIHILATION could be compared to ALIEN, Garland finds a way to make these stories stand on their own. Although the film is technically the first film in a trilogy, it easily stands alone; so much so that I don’t even know that I want them to make the sequels. I like that the ending of this film leaves you wondering where we go from here and how the effects of The Shimmer could continue reverberating through society.
Whether it’s weirdly modified creatures, or some :ahem: unnerving/strange scenes, a movie is a winner in my book when I think to myself multiple times, “WTF am I watching???”… in a good way. ANNIHILATION has those moments in spades and, like EX MACHINA, will have a place on recommendation and “best of” lists in the months and years to come.
My Review: B+