By: Steve Pulaski
Annihilation finally allows me to say what's been on the tip of my tongue since I saw Ex Machina back in 2015: Alex Garland is for real. Thanks to the 28 Days films, Sunshine, and Dredd, we knew he was a very successful screenwriter, but both his debut and now this sophomore effort are the equivalent of back-to-back grand-slams for the 47-year-old when he's also occupying the director's chair.
With Annihilation, Garland creates an effective harmony by encasing a challenging story about imminent environmental disaster and marital trust in a story with boundless visual imagination. He thrusts us into a compelling world that dazzles as it complicates our understanding of it. Trying to pin it down with precise absolutes is foolish. Like any lofty work of science-fiction, letting go of your conception of reality to become absorbed in another is a wiser move. But I won't begin to harass people who just have to know what all its subtle notions build towards. It's an understandable impulse for which the film certainly allows.
The film revolves around Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist with a military background, whose husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), a special ops soldier, disappeared a year ago when sent on a mission into an environmental disaster zone. The area is now growing at an alarming rate and is distinguished by mysterious colors and a pulsating protective force-field. One day while painting her bedroom, Lena's cathartic measures are interrupted by the surprise return of her husband, who now bears a coldly distant personality.
After he goes through a crippling seizure that puts him in the hospital, Lena arrives at a government facility where doctors, scientists, and military personnel all make an effort to comprehend and combat the expanding area, known as "the Shimmer." Lena agrees to partake in entering and exploring the Shimmer in an expedition led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) with the added assistance of several professionals: Gina Rodriguez's Anya, a medic, Tuva Novotny's Cass, an anthropologist, and Tessa Thompson's Josie, a physicist.
Unpacking this film and its grandiose ideas aren't easy, but as was the case with Ex Machina, Garland crafts his brain-child to be open to multiple interpretations. His previous effort was elevated by some delightfully unexpected feminist subtext; a greater story of how a woman survives in a world controlled by males which found supremely engrossing representation through AI. Most prominently, Annihilation could be seen as a story of environmental pressures. The Shimmer itself is seen by most of the individuals close to it as something looking to consume and destroy the planet, but Lena comes to question whether or not its intention is to destroy but rather completely create. Even with this possibility raised, Garland doesn't close off the idea that the Shimmer is indeed malicious. Like an artist, he is cognizant of what he's doing, fully aware of his own intentions, and noticeably adamant about not restricting the interpretations of others.
Almost everything about Annihilation shows his carefulness as a writer and a director, but not to the point where characters or motivations feel manufactured. His pacing is elegant, accentuated by Barney Pilling's editing, which makes the film emblematic of the smaller moments in science-fiction that exist between the immense discoveries and spectacle. Of course we want those moments, but to predicate a film solely off of those large, course-altering sequences is not only tiresome but runs the risk of making none of them special. When something jarring or unexpected occurs in Annihilation, we feel like the characters in the film to some degree; not only were we not anticipating it but we weren't groomed for it either and that makes those moments hit like a punch.
Consider a spine-chilling sequence involving a bear. Without ruining the craft behind it, it's one I won't soon forget, with sounds that will certainly haunt a nightmare I'll soon have. It's a chilling scene, and one I'd argue was greatly elevated by the presence of those quieter, more refined moments of discovery on part of the four women. In an external sense, it shows Garland's proficiency for incorporating elements of horror into a film that is already swollen with an unshakable sense of dread. A scene like this wouldn't have worked as well as it does without the added benefit of a methodical pace that favors the process of the scientists and the realistically portrayed slowness of discovery.
Portman has had so many great performances in such a relatively short amount of time that it's easy to forget she's only 36 and likely has decades more to come. Her performance in Annihilationis as strong as anything she's done in the past. Like the film itself, she reminds us of Amy Adams in Arrival with how smoothly she segwayed into a genre she hasn't permeated very much. Leigh and Rodriguez also give compelling performances, realizing their characters past their job-titles, and although a significantly smaller part of the film, Isaac is as good as you've come to expect him to be. Not to mention, his chemistry with Portman is so good it makes me hope for a possible reunion of the two down the line.
Bound to heap the most praise are Annihilation's kaleidoscopic visuals, which range from hypnotic to downright entrancing, especially during the final 20 minutes. The beauty of the film comes from how simultaneously much and little there is to the Shimmer, and how natural it looks. Once again, Garland knows how to reveal this world to us. Similar to how he handles his story, he lets us discover it rather than immediately show it to us with several montages and establishing shots. The process of seeing how this prism works and how it's comprised is stimulating and eminently fascinating.
On a final note, a tip of the cap to one of the film's producers, Scott Rudin, who combated one of Paramount's top financiers after he suggested that Garland incorporate more obvious tonal aspects to make the film more digestible for a mainstream audience. In the past decades, it's become sickening to see how fearful Hollywood is of creativity; so nervous about the bottom-dollar that they'll paradoxically spend even more money to go back and try to "improve" something by making it less ambitious. With that said, it's stunning to see the studio handleAnnihilation's international release by dumping it on Netflix. This is a film that would be more appreciated in the United Kingdom than in America, not to mention one that best suits a large screen. But even with these outside factors, it can't bring down what an immersive film this is and what a truly original voice Garland is for a legion of science-fiction fans.
It would be a great change of pace to see American audiences approach a science-fiction film that favors graceful buildup and the quiet moments in between spectacle without immediate desire to critique. But that alone would be an alternative story of science-fiction.