Fear not, viewers outside North America, despite reaching us through Netflix ANNIHILATION is not another straight-to-streaming stinker. In fact, Alex Garland’s second film as director is a thought-provoking, odd and uniquely beautiful beast.
A military-science expedition into a quarantined area of wilderness causes each member of the expeditionary team to question their sanity, perception and the very laws that hold the universe together. Academic and former soldier Lena (Natalie Portman) volunteers for the mission following the sudden reappearance of her missing husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) in a critical state of health, but everyone has their reasons for heading into the “Shimmer”.
Early on there’s a striking shot of Lena and Kane reconnecting after a long time apart, their hands meeting seen through a glass of water. The image of their fingers touching bleeds, refracts and distorts. This becomes a motif as the film progresses, often with characters being separated by some barrier or another, creating distance in their relationships and forcing us to question our, and the characters’ perception of what is going on.
It’s great to see an all-female team of scientists and security types (explained as being able to offer a different take on the mission than all the solely male teams who have failed by disappearing or dying horribly ). You usually just get the token woman (Vasquez in ALIENS) or the fretting wife back home and it’s very refreshing here to redress the balance. There’s a lot of effort to differentiate the team and flesh them all out with unique backstories and motivations, and the characters work in broad strokes, though the genius in the group (Tessa Thompson) is of course meek and wears glasses. Thankfully the rounded performances make up for any shortcomings in character writing. I want to hear Jennifer Jason Leigh provide handy exposition in more things, because you forget how commanding a presence she can be (“Soldier-scientist – you can fight and you can learn”).
Everything in this world is refracted in some way. This is an alien invasion (sort-of – something extraterrestrial may crash to Earth) movie all about change, not destruction. Despite the gun-toting on the poster, this is not an action film. Mutated creatures attack, but the team usually have to think their way out of whatever pickle they find themselves in. Much like ARRIVAL, this story is driven much more by theme than plot, and what happens in the beginning, the middle and especially the end is left deliberately ambiguous. Be on the look out for visual cues that rhyme but don’t necessarily say a lot about what is or isn’t actually happening.
There’s an odd, sinister beauty to a lot of this, from the oily, pearlescent barrier of the Shimmer to the fauna gone a bit wrong that live within it. The image of wildflowers that have grown into human shapes and stand watch like sombre guardians and the innocuous crystal trees scattered over a beach landscape will stay with me.
The film has one of the most captivating, perplexing finales I’ve seen since…probably Garland’s last feature. This isn’t another EX MACHINA, but a different thinky sci-fi that takes its big ideas away from the confines of a chamber piece and out into the wild. Personally, I really enjoyed the confines of Ex Machina, but the expanded playground and thematic headspace of Annihilation works pretty well too. Don’t look for answers here, because you won’t get any. Unless Garland or someone else adapts one of Jeff VanderMeer’s sequels, then we might get some. Just enjoy the weirdness, and the debates about what it all means that follows. SSP