Following his breakout hit Ex Machina, Alex Garland has returned with a new sci-fi stunner in the form of Annihilation. A hypnotic, uncompromising story with genuine thrills and chills, it stands to be one of the most impressive genre films of 2018.
A nightmarish landscape takes its form as a group of female scientists, scholars, and soldiers make their way through the Shimmer; a jungle-like zone where the laws of physics and nature don’t apply. It bears a striking resemblance to Russian avant-gardist Andrei Tarkovsky’s own environmental sci-fi landmark Stalker, but the effect displayed is more psychological than physiological. We watch as the primary characters are ensnared by the metaphysical forces at bay, as a number of captivating, otherworldly horrors to take form.
If Ex Machina revolved around the idea of what humanity means in the face of ever-evolving technology, Annihilation takes this notion a step further by considering the very components of humanity itself. Within this notion, Garland provides a dissection of externalized paranoia we concoct in our imaginations, as the group comes face to face with numerous unnatural creations that are near-hallucinatory. At the same time, he provides a more realistic encapsulation of the real, destructive tendencies that we inflict on others and ourselves - eventually these elements coming together to create one singular organism.
Annihilation aspires to reach the same heights of the greatest works in intellectual sci-fi cinema. In this pursuit, it detaches itself greatly from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name. Garland’s screenplay (which he wrote as a re-imagining of the original plot via his own recollection) instills a feeling of unease from the start, permeating throughout as the narrative unfolds in non-linear fashion. It lets the viewer attempt to put the pieces together scene-by-scene, while on another level, enabling them to engage deeply with its visual and sensory display to the very end, and then some (thanks to a truly psychedelic end credits sequence).
In this approach, sequences play with the fear of the unknown to great effect; some of which hold the capacity to become iconic through sheer suspense. Garland’s collaborators, much of the same people who worked on Ex Machina deserve credit for enhancing these moments, from the droning dissonant score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, to the uncanny production design by Mark Digby, and the cinematography from Rob Hardy that balances beauty and fright in equal doses.
While the film’s environment is perhaps the most dominant character, Annihilation’s ensemble should not be diminished. Continuing her streak of strong female leading roles, Natalie Portman gives a complex, standout performance as Lena, a biologist seeking answers regarding her husband (Oscar Isaac) and his altered behavior following a previous encounter in the Shimmer. Lena is countered by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the stiff, no-nonsense leader of the expedition with her own reasons for wanting to explore the environment. They are joined by three younger women (Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny) providing ample muscle and brainpower - all of which come in handy for the dangers that eventually emerge. Every actress here does an amazing job and are each given ample character moments and dimension to drive the story forward in separate ways.
Annihilation leaves room for subtle, implicit elements to bear their presence; moments that refuse easy answers and unquestionably will result in argumentative interpretations and discussion on repeat viewings. More than a respectable follow-up to Garland’s debut Ex Machina, Annihilation is everything a brainy sci-fi film should be; a vision that builds on its antecedents to deliver a bold, remarkable, and immersive experience unlike anything in contemporary cinema.
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