We have been anticipating the release of Annihilation for a while now, we posted about the trailer back in September and it was saddening to hear its been by-passed for a theatrical release, adding to an ever growing list of science fiction movies with a straight-to-Netflix fate. Based on 2014's award-winning novel by Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation is the first instalment of a series of three books called the Southern Reach Technology. Director/ writer Alex Garland has mirrored the book's harrowing, cerebral sci-fi setting and cutting-edge story-telling morphing it into an impressive follow-up to his superb, similarly futuristic debut Ex-Machina.
Army Sergeant Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for over a year after embarking on a classified expedition into an unknown, ever-expanding region called ‘the shimmering'. Previous expeditions have failed to return, but Kane is the only one to make it out alive; appearing out of the blue on the doorstep of his resigned wife, biologist Lena played by Natalie Portman. Disorientated with no recollection of where he's been, he immediately falls fatally ill. In a bid to find a cure, Lena decides to join a new all-female expedition, joining psychologist Dr Ventress (Jenifer Jason Leigh), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radeck (Tessa Thompson) and anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), with an aim to get to the source of the shimmering, a lighthouse on the sea-front. Things take on the absurd and dramatic, waking up days in with no clues as to how they go there, skeletal remains scattered all over the place, bizarre manifestations of mutated killer crocodiles and bears or deer with flower blossoms sprouting out of their antlers. Soon enough, their horror escalates as they realise, they themselves are mutating,'the shimmering' acts as a genetic prism, distorting and diffracting DNA of all living matter within it.
Like in Ex Machina, Garland indulges in sombre moods, dressed in fine looking exteriors. Aestheitcally the film is gorgeous, the effects maybe understated but still very striking as the prism's reflections cast a technicolour sheen over everything. Mind-altering moments and mutated beings are littered throughout; arresting scenes such as when Dr. Ventress' body morph into a bright psychedelic coagulating blob, its disturbingly luscious. Music producers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barlow (from Portishead fame) provide an exceptional musical score that ramps up tension, heightening the visual experience by playing up to these hallucinogenic moments using a dearth of heavy synths.
Despite the rarity of an all-female cast, Garland puts gender politics to one side, as we see them unconcerned with any frivolous comradery, keeping very much to their own. In fact humanity in the film; in or outside the prism is presented in a less than favourable light and its need of preservation doesn't feel so imminent. The alien's portrayal is not one of pure evil, but more of an ambiguous, ever-evolving force. The threat isn't necessarily ‘the shimmering' itself but the new genetically reshuffled landscape it creates, turning the flora and fauna into deadly, predatory creatures. Even when Lena encounters a semblance of an alien form: a faceless, sexless metal grey figure, its presence isn't threatening but instead inquisitive and lumbering, as it starts to clumsily emulate Lena's movement, its is equally creepy as it is amusing.
Portman is remarkable as the troubled Lena. She is in a perpetual state of anxiety; the continuous flashbacks of her life with Kane and a discrepancy with a male colleague plague her as is the ominous and unfamiliar present. Rodriguez is unrecognisable as the bulked up butch paramedic, a far cry from the innocent Jane the Virgin. But the highlight, is Leigh's performance as the cold and insular doctor. It's an incredibly natural performance where she under plays Ventress, allowing for her silence to speak volumes of her inner turmoil. As its revealed she is dying of cancer, we see her as fearless and less emotional than the rest, perhaps there is a sense freedom from her looming death to undertake this mission, whatever the consequence may be.
Annihilation is an unusual proposition, it sits somewhere between horror and sci-fi, but doesn't adhere to any of these genres' rules. The film's otherwordly elements are heavily reminiscent of Tarsem Singh's The Cell and the presentation of an unclear yet unsettling alien threat reminds of Jonathan Glazer's Under Her Skin. The film stays with you, for its beauty but also perplexing themes with various plot strands elaborated very briefly or is simply left unexplored. But upon reflection I've come to realize Garland, wants to keep things enigmatic and eerie, making viewers to fill in their own gaps; making them question and reinterpret what they are seeing in this unstable realm.
The film received lukewarm reviews with US audiences in its theatrical release, claiming it was too intellectual for some people; a similar fate to last year's epic Blade Runner 2049. Sadly, it seems people prefer to be drip-fed DC and Marvel heroes, than engage with film such Annihilation, as viewers perhaps feel challenged. Needless to say, the film's alternative use of a sci-fi language, should be merited rather rejected. Its release outside the US, will be straight to Netflix, which is shame as the film deservedly needs to be seen on a big cinema screen.
Annihilation will be available on Netflix from the 12th March 2018.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_