2018 – UK, USA
Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny
Words: Josh Senior
It’s safe to say the release of Annihilation has caused some controversy, so let’s address the issue head on.
Paramount’s decision to deny the film a worldwide theatrical release and dump it onto streaming site Netflix has been a universally unpopular one. It marks a change in Netflix’s position in the marketplace, as it’s safe to say Annihilation is their biggest release to date, a film that was produced by a Hollywood studio that has now been sold short.
Netflix’s collective crop of “originals” has thrown up a mixed bag of content, with highlights being films such as Mudbound, Okja and War Machine, but on the whole their forays into cinema have thus far been a tad muted. There’s a disconnect there between the audience and the content, that a cinema usually provides the bridge for, the element of curation. It is interesting that Netflix are able to give film-makers a blank cheque and complete creative control, but this wasn’t the case for Annihilation, a film which has been snatched from the eyes of the masses, now forced to play on laptop and tablet screens for eternity (unless you can catch one of the few cinematic outings it’s managing to get in the UK).
This is a film made for the big screen, Alex Garland’s sophomore directorial effort is a dense and puzzling work of tantalising science-fiction which offers a palate cleanser from the usual genre tropes.
The film follows Lena (Portman) a Biology lecturer and former soldier, who believing her husband Kane (Isaac) has been killed in a covert operation is shocked at his sudden reappearance in her home, after more than a year of being missing. Kane then falls ill, and the two are rapidly whisked into government custody. Lena learns that Kane went missing, along with many others in a mysterious alien dead zone entitled The Shimmer, which is ringed by a psychedelic force field. Nothing comes out, and anything that goes in does not return, and it is expanding rapidly. As Kane’s health takes a turn for the worse Lena bands together with an all-female group of scientists and ventures into The Shimmer, which offers up a surreal and deadly environment filled with dangers, to search for the secrets behind her husband’s condition, and to discover what lies at the centre of this strange new world.
Annihilation is just a pure cinematic delight from start to finish, utilising its unconventional narrative, heavy themes and stunning visuals to mass effect in creating a piece of work that will leave you thinking and pondering for days afterwards.
Portman’s Lena is an excellent conflicted heroine, “a soldier scientist: she fights, she learns” and these are laid bare by the harshness of The Shimmer, it brings her skills as a soldier to the forefront as she battles the various creatures that emerge to attack the group and challenges her understanding of the world around her, and bends her perceptions of reality.
Each of the scientists is dealing with deep personal issues; terminal illness, self harm, addiction and loss, and they look to the mysteries of their setting to provide the answers, and unwittingly it throws up more questions and offers only confusion. This in turn drives straight into the heart of their group dynamic, and the further they progress into their mission the more fractured their relationships become.
The film’s third act takes us into the beating heart of The Shimmer and again challenges our perceptions and asks questions of the viewer, what it doesn’t offer is a stimulating climax – Annihilation succeeds in dangling its themes before your eyes and whipping them away before you’ve had a chance to look closely. The final confrontation that is thrown up is insanely beautiful and intricate all at once, but doesn’t give you the satisfactory ending you’ve been looking for… far from it.
The only detractor is, that even for a film with a run-time of two hours, it still feels a little over stuffed and the character development is at times rushed. Using some clumsy visual storytelling to convey its messages. Considering the genre it exists in and its large themes it could have done with a little more time to burn out at a more relaxed pace. Often some of the elements in the film are not given the time they deserve.
Credit where credit is due though, Alex Garland has crafted something so starkly intriguing that you find yourself wanting to delve back into the world of Annihilation again, and it’s surely a film that warrants repeat viewings to better understand what it’s trying to achieve.
Whether you see it in a cinema, on your laptop or even on your phone (please don’t watch it on your phone), just be glad that it’s here and that you can see it in some way, it really is that good.