Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong
Plot: Five scientists investigate a meteor landing that has put a ‘shimmer’ over swamplands and is warping everything it touches.
Let’s start this review of Annihilation by trying to figure out what this film was actually about. The movie opens with a meteor hitting a lighthouse. The story that follows, told in a non-linear pattern (film-maker cheat for making a story seem more complicated than it actually is), goes a little something like this. The meteor leaves a mysterious, visible shimmer around the lighthouse that is slowly, but surely, expanding. The military send team after team into the shimmer, but they get no response back from their units… until Oscar Isaacs’ stoic soldier emerges with no memory and failing organs. The military devise a new scheme: rather than sending in soldiers, perhaps the better option would be to give a group of scientists gun training and send them into the shimmer, so their knowledge can help them figure out what is happening inside this strange phenomenon. Among the scientists is Natalie Portman’s Lena, the wife of Oscar Isaacs, who spent the last year believing he was killed in action, on his covert mission. Fuelled by a desire to save him, Lena and her mismatched female companions enter the Shimmer, where they discover a scientific anomaly beyond anything they could have imagined.
What Alex Garland has in store for you, however, is something you need to watch for yourself. A disclaimer going in, that you might have figured out already from Netflix’s style and Garland’s last feature, Ex-Machina – this isn’t going to be quite the film you want it to be. Its biggest issue is that it feels almost like a horror, with a group of people obviously sporting a few red shirts, wandering into a strange unknown. In fact, there is one scene about two thirds of the way in that is terrifyingly horror, featuring a twisted mutant monster and a grizzly death. But to call Annihilation just a horror would be sell Alex Garland’s second feature painfully short. His ambitions are far loftier than spooking the viewers. Annihilation is closer to a slow-burning Sci-Fi, much like Ex-Machina, which slowly questioned the truth behind robot AI. Its horror movie premise grows from something that wants to scare you into a thoughtful mystery with certain horror elements. It will definitely lose some viewers along the way, but those willing to stick to its end will be satisfied with the conclusion. Alex Garland takes a novel written by Jeff VanderMeer and uses it as his playground. On one hand, he analyses the self-destruction of the human race. Each of the five characters are essentially on a suicide mission. Jennifer Jason Leigh is the psychologist in charge of the mission, tired of sending men to their deaths, so intent on heading into the fray herself. Tessa Thompson (delightfully miles away from her stint in Thor: Ragnarok), self-harms to feel alive. As the characters explain, their desire on this mission, isn’t so much to commit suicide, but to push the boundaries of their existence. Don’t we all self-destruct from time to time? Even Natalie Portman’s character, as told through brief flashbacks, has a habit of turning her own life inside out. It gifts the film with five pleasingly three-dimensional characters, who, while not as integral to the story as they initially seem, help keep the film bursting with energy during the slower bits. And the end of the story is where Garland allows himself the freedom to go full crazy. As you might have guessed from the bizarre set-pieces leading up to the finale, not everything is as it seems. The conclusion is a healthy mix of ambiguous and understandable. The science element might lose some, so just revel in the creepiness of it all. Portman experiments with some Black Swan themes again. The ending suggests an alternative ending. Nothing is as it seems.
Final Verdict: Annihilation is a crazy, spooky journey that is bigger on narratives than scares, but still delivers an impacting experience.