Directed by Alex Garland
Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac and Benedict Wong.
After the disappearance of her husband on a secret mission, biologist Lena assumes he’s dead. His return is a shock and, when he’s taken seriously ill, she decides to follow in his footsteps and go on the same mission. To discover the reason behind what appears to be an environmental disaster. One that’s spreading across the planet.
There was a biologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, a doctor and a linguist. But what they face in Alex Garland’s Annihilation is no joke. It’s called a shimmer, a seemingly limitless barrier of moving colour, mainly greens, blues and purples – rather like oil on water – and it disguises a world like no other. One where the plants are vibrantly multi-coloured garlands, where animals mutate into grotesque versions of themselves and where time passes almost imperceptibly.
The team of scientists – all women, although the film doesn’t make a big deal of it – are sent to find out what’s happening behind that shimmer and the reasons why. They’re not the first: several missions have gone before, only one person has come out alive and has provided nothing in the way of information. The sense of foreboding that permeates the film begins well before that: right at the very start, in fact, where we see biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) being questioned in an isolation unit. Everybody bar her wears anti-contamination suits and that feeling of doom starts cranking up from that moment.
Garland’s first film since the much-praised Ex Machina was originally destined for the big screen. And it shows. The reason why it had a cinema release in the US and is now being shown to the rest of the world on Netflix has been one of this year’s hot topics for movie commentators. With its swirling psychedelia, blood curdling mutant beasts, beautiful landscapes and moments of jump-out-of-your-seat horror, the cinema is its natural home and, on the big screen, it must have been stunning for those lucky enough to experience it. The colours more glowing, the effects more special and the horror more nerve shredding. But the small screen is where everybody else is going to see it and, while not ideal, the film still makes for a visually impressive and intelligent piece of sci-fi horror.
It nods in the direction of a number of other films – The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Arrival, Alien even – but never leans on them too heavily, creating a story and an environment of its own where exquisite, near-hypnotic beauty exists side by side with gruesome horror. And, while it obeys the convention of characters being picked off one by one, we’re actually allowed to see what happens to them, instead of it being left to our imagination. The five scientists are more than just their specialist subjects. Natalie Portman leads the way, haunted by her personal circumstances and her connection to the only survivor from the other missions. Jennifer Jason Leigh as the hard faced leader of the expedition with her own personal burden to bear and Gina Rodriguez as the fiery, confrontational medic in the crew also shine.
That Annihilation isn’t going to be seen in cinemas is a loss for movie goers outside the USA. Settling for second best is never ideal, and the film’s obvious qualities and strengths make that even more obvious. It’s another thought-provoking, visually arresting offering from Alex Garland, one not just for fans of sci-fi and/or horror but for anybody who likes intelligent, bold movies with more than a frisson of tension in their DNA. If only it could be seen in its natural home.
Annihilation is released on Netflix on Monday, 12th March.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Freda Cooper. Follow me on Twitter.