Start from the beginning...
Based on the first in a trilogy of novels by Jeff VanderMeer, writer/director Alex Garland's Annihilation centers around Lena (Natalie Portman), a former soldier turned Johns Hopkins biology professor whose husband, a soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac), disappears while on a mysterious mission. A year later, Kane shows up at the family home but there's something different and the previously comfortable, intimate relationship is suddenly inexplicably strained. When Kane starts coughing up blood, the mystery deepens until the couple is taken to Area X, the area where Kane disappeared and where now Lena agrees to join Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), and Josie (Tessa Thompson) on the next expedition toward what is known as "The Shimmer," an ethereal band of light that shields a lighthouse contained deep within Area X. It is Lena's personal mission to discover the truth about what happened to Kane and, if possible, to also discover the cure.
Garland's Ex Machina never quite got the critical acclaim or box-office it deserved, though the A24 release managed to at least come close to a break-even point with a $36 million global box-office gross on a $15 million production budget plus marketing costs. Despite a modest by today's standards production budget of $40 million, the relentlessly bleak, disturbing Annihilation seems to already be giving its distributor, Paramount, fits of anxiety given that the studio lost around $350 million in 2016 and was only salvaged in 2017 by global receipts, and signed away part of the rights of this film to Netflix.
Opening in just over 2,000 theaters nationwide, Annihilation is the kind of film that defies adequate description for even the most eloquent of film critics.
For the record, I am not one of the most eloquent film critics.
Existing somewhere within the cinematic otherworld of sci-fi meets horror, Annihilation isn't the kind of film that I embrace but, alas, I wholeheartedly embraced it. There wasn't a moment of Annihilation that I didn't love, yet there were moments of Annihilation I could barely watch, couldn't completely understand, and found myself completely and utterly freaked out by.
It's worth noting, at least according to those in the know, that Garland's Annihilation deviates fairly substantially from VanderMeer's novel. As someone who hasn't read VanderMeer's novels, this obviously didn't bother me but if you're a literary purist you will likely find yourself disappointed to a certain degree. The disappointment should be short-lived, however, as Garland has crafted one of the year's most visually arresting and gorgeous films yet also one of the year's most disturbing and unforgettable ones. Rob Hardy's immersive to the point of creepy-crawly lensing practically bathes within Mark Digby's lush, layered production design that creates a world unlike any other. The fog-enveloped swamp is being refracted by a mysterious alien biomass at the center of what is known as The Shimmer, an area difficult to describe and best left to experience for oneself as flowers mutate within themselves, an invasive fungus dominates the landscape, and even animal life is wondrously and destructively perverse. It's a world that could be cartoonish, in many films would be cartoonish, yet in the hands of Garland is hypnotic and beautiful and terrifying and suffocating and so much more.
It will come as no surprise that The Shimmer, while ecologically horrifying, is equally devastating in its impact on the humans who ill-advisedly decide to venture into it. As Portman and her fellow adventurers journey deeper into The Shimmer, their sense of impending doom increasingly evident on their faces and throughout their entire bodies, Annihilation begins to position itself as something bigger and better and more mysterious and more terrifying than we've seen in quite some time on the big screen. Weaving together elements of eco-horror and body horror, Annihilation irrevocably intertwines the two sub-genres of sci-fi/horror and makes them do battle between themselves. From 2001 to Tarkovsky's Stalker to glimpses of the fatalism of Apocalypse Now, Annihilation is less about something and more about the intangible everything.
Good friend and fellow film journalist Sam Watermeier is currently writing a series of articles on the most memorable scenes of highly esteemed filmmakers. It's impossible to imagine that one day the final scene Annihilation won't end up on such a list, so mind-numbingly awesome is its visual and emotional power and so transformative is its influence that even as I find myself sitting here writing about it my body is shaking and my skin is crawling. Despite the pressure, one would have to imagine, to do a more studio friendly ending offering concrete conclusions and emotional release, Garland remains faithful to his artistic vision through the very end by crafting a segment of cinema that is, without question, one of the single best scenes in any sci-fi/horror flick of the last ten years or longer.
With ultimate faith toward his audience, Garland asks the questions and empowers the audience to discover the answers.
The cast is uniformly strong here, Natalie Portman's Lena shining most brightly with a performance that may, finally, allow me to finally forgive her for the godawful Thor films. Portman possesses a certainty within her performance, a quiet resolve meets intellectual depth, that makes the film easily one of her most satisfying performances to date. Leigh's unpredictable Dr. Ventress, Rodriguez's more practical Anya, and Thompson's almost meditative botanist also shine broughtly throughout the film's nearly two-hour running time.
For years, one could look to the early months of the year as a cinematic dumping ground with the exception of the inevitable awards contenders building up through awards season. In recent years, Hollywood's seasonal predictability has waned and there are gems, sometimes well hidden ones, throughout the year. While some may have thought that Annihilation would end up being not much more than a throwaway film, Alex Garland has taken a bigger budget and managed to infuse this studio release with upgraded tech, an indie sensibility, and enough mesmerizingly beautiful and soul-jarringly horrifying scenes that you will be left feeling exhausted, exhilarated and emotionally spent by film's end.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic