Directed by Alex Garland.
Starring: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Benedict Wong, and David Gyasi.
A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.
Heavens bless a *hard* science fiction mind-meld starring female leads that can sell out multiple screenings alongside Marvel’s Black Panther – at least in Brooklyn, NY. Alex Garland’s Annihilation opened elsewhere to lackluster box office results, but that hasn’t quieted a swell of favorable critiques proclaiming it a “masterpiece” of limitless genre curiosity. Transcendent imagery, freestyled storytelling, ambition as far as cosmic unrest can reach – Jeff VanderMeer’s source literature is done blockbuster justice in multiple ways that, frankly, ignite a sumptuous burst of decedent nothingness. Don’t get me wrong, Annihilation is a fine rumination on mortality and answers from the beyond…just with pockets of execution far more interested in the questions being pondered than flowing story advancement at hand.
Natalie Portman plays Lena, an ex-Army cadet/cell-focused biologist tasked with an insurmountable journey. Her husband – special forces soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac) – appears in her bedroom one night after being presumed dead for months. This leads both Lena and Kane to “Area X,” a research outpost under the command of Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) that overlooks an expanding quarantine zone known only as “The Shimmer.” Kane’s squad was ordered past its wavy barriers and he returned alone (a shell of his former self). Lena has no idea how to help until a handful of female scientists let it be known that Dr. Ventress is leading them into the undocumented disaster zone. So begins our heroines’ quest for answers, presumably to be found in a lighthouse dead-center of the growing realm – full of danger, scant of logic.
Without pause, Annihilation begs audiences to care less about “hows” and “whys” in favor of traumatically superb visuals. And you know what? Garland’s team pulls off the task infinitely more times than not. Imagine a world where Dr. Seuss’ whimsical tapestries are reimagined by a DeviantArt user who splices zombified animals into magical, morbid kingdoms. Crystal palm trees, fungal outbreaks that color the rainbow, nightmarish bear creatures with Skullcrawler faces (Kong: Skull Island). Ventress’ squad trudges through a veritable wonderland of mutation beautification that’ll leave academics in awe, stuck somewhere between Under The Skin, The Fountain and Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. Shades of Aronofsky with Malickian abandon.
In considering Garland’s adapted screenplay, Annihilation evaluates purpose through an extraterrestrial lens. Quite simply, everything inside “The Shimmer” undergoes DNA alteration that might unite deer with rose bush accents – or turn a human body into some kind of Carpenter-esque monstrosity of bursting mold colonies and twisted skeletal frames. “What was its purpose,” Benedict Wong’s interrogator Lomax continually asks Lena’s sole survivor through intercut questioning scenes (no spoilers, this is how the movie begins). “I don’t know,” Lena persists. Lomax cannot – or will not – accept that there’s no particular reason for “The Shimmer” besides evolution on a non-human scale, suggesting our own place in this universe be merely as “inconsequential.”
As Garland tackles the same brand of existential quantifying that filmmakers have so breathlessly imposed for decades, plotted questions will – expectedly – arise. Oscar Isaac’s Kane is an obvious quandary, one that becomes murkier as Lena reveals the pulsating headiness of what dwells deep inside “The Shimmer’s” core. This daunting unknown that looms over Lena’s extremely personal spiral into despair makes for such a powerful punch – Garland’s lighthouse finale an unceasing destabilization of life itself – but, even with so much stress put on letting go of Earthly reservations, some puzzle pieces are slammed fist-in. Kane’s inexplicable reappearance (memory replication?), Dr. Ventress’ post-grizzly vanishing act, continued cell divisions in context with the film’s phosphorus grenade climax? Mental gymnastics can connect as many scenarios in Garland’s synapse-frying world governed not by nature’s law, only without the profoundness this trance DJ’s wet dream might aesthetically signify.
In turn, Annihilation benefits from disorienting and analytical performances across the ranks. Portman’s blend of military training and intellectual complexity commands during any number of scenarios (blasting rifle rounds/shunning ex-lovers/rationalizing the irrational), a liar who’s always bettered by supporting tragedies. Gina Rodriguez, for example, as resident conspiracy spitter Anya Thorensen who almost gets her entire squad killed during an especially wicked – and tremendously acted – breakdown. Tessa Thompson as meek and overwhelmed Josie Radek, Tuva Novotny as the wounded mother in Cass Sheppard. All of them – including Jennifer Jason Leigh’s “suicidal” captain – fumbling with their own confrontation of supreme significance (fear, acceptance, ignorance, etc). “Imperfect” pawns demanding to be something more.
There are times, typically at the height of bleakness, when Annihilation feels like a masterpiece. Radiant environmental formations and body-horror murals evoke visceral reactions as The Thing or American Werewolf In London once did. An interrogation sequence where Anya loses her mind to “The Shimmer’s” DNA scrambling and body to the aforementioned hellspawn bear will be remembered as one of 2018’s bastions of tension. For how impartial Garland’s finale is, the vibrant blur of liquid art-deco geometrics hypnotize with arresting defiance. Sprouted “mutations” like seabed coral fixtures circling upwards towards a piercing light, conclusion in a message that comes no closer to solving life’s greatest mysteries for that exact reason – to remind how mysterious our existence truly is.
Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a puff from one of the year’s most cataclysmically up-tempo strains of synthetic sci-fi devastation. A naturalistic fever-dream from the start to finish meant to charge into the darkest of unknowns with hands raised upwards. It’s such a confident showing that shies not from high-concept, bigger-thinking formulation (who knew Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping” was about cell division), but still struggles to navigate indomitable landscapes with consistent fluidity. Natalie Portman takes charge of this certifiable knockout in terms of representation and visual achievement, if only to become lost in the vast grandness of delineating what we ourselves cannot identify – a vessel for cinematic curiosity that hopes to win over audiences by distraction, but a damn fine one at that.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★ / Movie: ★★★