Harkening back to my freshman year, one of the more surprising filmgoing experiences came in Alex Garland’s debut film, “Ex Machina,” a film that took the film world by storm in the absolutely genius way it went about handling a minimalist sci-fi tale of incredibly intellectual proportions. The film ended up being A24’s biggest release of the time and ended up even taking home the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, made independently on a budget of only $15 million. To this day, I’m still haunted by many of the grand questions that “Ex Machina” posed, and even more so by Alicia Vikander’s stunning performance as Ava, but before long, we all knew that Garland would have to make a follow up to his show-stopper of a debut. Shrouded in secrecy, his follow up, set up at Paramount and Skydance, was to be an adaption of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel “Annihilation.” Still, one has to wonder if Garland just had a lucky shot on his first outing, or if “Annihilation” would be the true sign of a long and prosperous career behind the camera.
And somehow, just somehow, he strikes lightning, harder, stronger, but a divisive, complicated, challenging bolt of lightning “Annihilation” is, which only seeks to help its case.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) is a soldier in the Army, who has been missing for nearly a year after he went off on a secretive mission that no one can tell Lena of. When Kane mysteriously arrives home one evening, he soon begins to seize and convulse. Soon after, Lena learns that her husband was sent on a mission into “The Shimmer,” a mysterious wall of undetectable chemical construction slowly expanding from the focal point of a lighthouse located in the Southern Reach. With Kane now in a coma suffering from massive internal bleeding and organ failure, Lena requests a spot on the team entering The Shimmer to find out what has happened to each of the teams that have disappeared before them. Along with Lena, she’s joined by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), soldier Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) and surveyor Cass Shepard (Tuva Novotny). Inside, they begin to see the world they once thought they knew unravel around them, defying all known laws of science into something far more terrifying.
I refuse to reveal any more of the plot of “Annihilation” than that, because I think that the less you know going into this film, much like “Ex Machina,” the better. There’s a sense of dark wonder here that really can’t be felt as purely as it is when you know nothing of the material going into the film. “Annihilation” almost plays out like a sort of fucked up dark fairytale of exploration, one that, however wrong it goes, never ceases to feel any less magical and wondrous. There’s also a raw sense of organic exploratory awe in the film, almost how films like “Wild” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” had, with much much different tones about them. The feeling of discovery that you have while watching these scientists discover the endless intricacies of The Shimmer is something that you can attach yourself to in real time with the characters, making the final effects of the true nature of The Shimmer even more jarring.
A lot of these mixed tones of the film come in the score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, which combines a bevy of different music types into something that surprisingly feels cohesive. When a film doesn’t constrain itself to a certain genre or feeling, it gives creatives like a composer the ability to go outside the box and do things one might not expect. One might think a film like “Annihilation” might have a synth-heavy score, which it does have a good deal of, but the film also relies heavily on acoustic guitar and orchestral might. It’s three separate facets of film scoring that shouldn’t work well together, but in “Annihilation,” they do.
Performances in the film are diverse and strong across the board. The five women in the film are all strong, different characters who all get the chance at one point to really show off the strong talents and traits that each character brings to the table. Portman is wonderful as Lena, bringing this sort of vulnerability that only Portman can play as well as she does. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance that gets as much strength in silence as she does in rage. Thompson brings a soft energy to the film, something that appreciates the beauty in The Shimmer, while ultimately being utterly terrified of the implications of it. Rodriguez brings the fire of the film with Anya, the character who gets to unravel the most inside The Shimmer, finding a really vulnerable, yet hard way of handling the situation in a sometimes terrifying manner. But the unexpected MVP of “Annihilation” comes in Leigh’s Dr. Ventress, a character that’s as mysterious as she is magnetic. She’s tough-as-nails, smart-as-hell, but there’s a certain sort of weakness about her that Leigh can balance really well with a tough exterior. She’s impenetrable, up until the point where she’s forced to be anything but, and that sort of balance really lends well to an actress like Leigh.
“Annihilation” looks like a dream. No, I don’t mean because it’s exceptionally shot, which it is, but because it literally has a hazy, dreamlike effect to its aesthetic that lends itself really well to the idea of physical and mental unraveling at the behest of the unknown. There’s never any real indication that what’s happening isn’t real, but the look of the film might often make you think otherwise, casting this shadow of doubt over everything in “Annihilation” and its events. It makes you think about the state of reality in a way that not many other films have gotten me to do, and I’m not even sure that was a main component of the construction of the world of “Annihilation.”
But don’t let my raving on the dreamlike wonder of the film dissuade you, “Annihilation” is very much a horror film. There are a few elements of surprise at play here, but nothing ever turns into anything that really resembles much of what we see today on screen. This is a cerebral horror with some really wonderful visceral moments of, for lack of a better term, levity. It’s a hard-R descent into madness that maintains its beauty while ramping up its suspense and terror as it goes along. A big complaint about “Annihilation” thus far is that its non-linear structure gives away the fate of a few characters early on, but I never once found myself fearing who would live and who would die in the film, as “Annihilation” poses much larger questions than that for me to care about a simple death order.
And that’s where “Annihilation” soars the highest: it’s smart as hell. It’s no wonder that Skydance CEO and local Booboo The Fool cosplayer Megan Ellison’s brother found the film to be “too intellectual,” convincing Paramount to sell the international distribution rights to Netflix for fear of mainstream audiences not embracing the film and its complex nature. This isn’t a film that lays everything, or even close to everything, out on the table for you to decipher. This is a film that requires multiple viewings, analysis and debate among viewers of the film. Leaving the theater, I heard many people immediately dismiss the film because it “didn’t have a point” or “they didn’t get it,” which is an understandable reaction to the content, but to completely throw away a film because you don’t understand it. Most times with films like this, there’s underlying subtext that the film is selectively keeping from the audience that’s hidden elsewhere in the film to rediscover; “Ex Machina” had it, “mother!” had it, and “Annihilation” has it. I cannot wait to see this movie again.
And those are the best types of movies to me as a viewer and film lover. While I enjoy films that are entertaining at face value, for a film to ask such large questions and do so in such a daring, genre-bending manner are the type of films I get out of bed to see. Everything about “Annihilation” is what I wanted from it, from the aesthetic, to the performances, to the score and the insanely intimidating questions that the film poses, to its batshit stunning way of answering them. It’s a stunning achievement on so many levels that I fear will go unappreciated due to its esoteric nature, as well as it opening a mere seven days after “Black Panther,” a stunning achievement in film of its own kind. “Annihilation” is more up my alley than “Black Panther,” but when your choices are between these two films when going to the movies, you know you’ve reached an incredibly special time for film. “Annihilation” slayed me.
Directed by: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Oscar Isaac.
Runtime: 115 minutes
Rating: R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality.
Paramount Pictures and Skydance present, a Scott Rudin/DNA Films production, “Annihilation”