Alex Garland is a science fiction writer that has a lot to say about humanity. His 2014 debut film Ex Machina followed a programmer studying a big name CEO’s invention of artificial intelligence, evolved into a complex study of what defines a “human.” The film was an exceptionally directed dive into the ideas of ego, gender roles, sexuality, and autonomy. His follow up feature, Annihilation, walks a different path from Ex Machina in scale. In his sophomore film, Garland shifts his style from a one-location thriller to a spectacle-filled journey through different environments. But Garland does not abandon his core philosophies, he develops them. Horrific yet gorgeous, Annihilation evokes the same feelings of previous science fiction films, but delivers a wildly original, personal, and experimental look into human themes.
The film was adapted by Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, but it bares little resemblance to the source material. Instead Garland takes an approach similar to Blade Runner, it takes the same basic principle and themes of the novel but and creates a piece that stands on its own. The film follows a team of scientists who must venture into the Shimmer, an area affected by an inexplicable force where all rules of nature no longer apply. The concept alone may feel derivative of other science fiction films (Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Scott’s Alien, just to name a few) but Annihilation‘s borrowing of conceptual elements is where its similarity ends. As the film dived deeper, it became a visceral experience that I personally haven’t ever seen or felt before. The way it slowly unwinds and presents itself to the audience in a surrealistic and cryptic fashion, it is both ambitious and daring to see this kind of direction in a studio film.
Essentially, Annihilation is not just a straightforward science fiction story, but rather a conceptual art piece (as my best friend described). Especially when it comes to the last act of the film, it reveals itself to be less about WHY things happen, but WHAT happens, and what they represent. What one gains from watching this movie may be up to how much they are willing to see into it. There are canonized themes of Man’s existence relative to nature, and self-destruction- but a majority of this film’s substance exists in the personal and subtextual. It elicits a very specific but universal emotion that viewers can connect to with their own experiences. Its ambiguity is its biggest strength, and it makes Annihilation such an engaging, individual experience for each person. We will make of it differently, as the scientists all have their own views on the shimmer, or as we all have our own views on life itself.
While the story remains abstract, the immense attention to detail of the film is on full display with the masterful technical aspects of the film. All of which continue to build on the story and tone, from the other-worldly production design, the dream-like cinematography, to the eerie dark synths and acoustic guitar strumming of the score. Familiar but disturbingly distorted is in the DNA of every technical choice made with this film. The towers are overgrown and covered with vines, but they were mutated and are unnaturally vibrant in color. The walls are covered in moss, but they warp and pulsate in mesmerizing patterns. But as twisted the sights may be, there is beauty in desolation. My favorite shot of the film shows a disfigured skeleton that is grown into the wall to resemble something almost like a religious painting. At first the sight looks like it was marked with death, but it actually is a sign of a birth of something entirely new.
Deliberately and distinctly polished in every way a film should be, the audiovisuals of this film are destined to be iconic down the road and referenced time and time again. Notably, the distinct ‘HRR NRR HRR NRR’ synth, dubbed as the ‘Annihilation Noise’ has already has made an impact as a meme within film twitter circles.
Natalie Portman gives another great performance as our main character Lena, but the stand-outs of this wonderful ensemble are Gina Rodriguez as Anya and Tessa Thompson as Josie- both of which get an exceptional moment of spotlight where they get to demonstrate their talents and develop their characters in fascinating ways. Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac have amazing chemistry together and their scenes, while brief, were a delight to watch. The performances throughout are muted and the dialogue may seem stilted, but it was a calculated move in keeping the tone of the film consistently surrealistic. There are also plenty of essential lines that offer insight on multiple viewings, for a film as abstract as it is, it relishes in small details.
Lately in the film industry there has been a new modern renaissance of science fiction films. In the last few years alone we have had original and fascinating films released that challenge other films in their spaces such as Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, Mad Max Fury Road, Midnight Special, Under the Skin, Her, 28 Days Later etc. As distinguishable as these films are, and whether influenced by Kubrick or Tarkovsky or whoever, it is clear we are currently in an age of directors that believe in the power of genre filmmaking. This is where originality in big budget movies will thrive in the future. Annihilation exists as a worthy addition to that amazing line-up of 2010’s canon, albeit it won’t be financially successful as Paramount Pictures decided to doom this movie before even giving it a chance, limiting the theatrical release to the U.S. and dumping the film to Netflix everywhere else.
Whether you watch Annihilation in a cinema or if you are going to log on to Netflix in the next few days, just be sure to view the film on the biggest screen you can find. It is a film that is substantial and thematically worth all of its weight in spectacle, so it deserves to be appreciated with your full attention. Allow yourself to get lost in the desolate beauty of the Shimmer, suspend yourself in its dreaminess and nightmarish qualities, and give yourself time to think about what Garland presents in front of you. There will most likely not be another film that reaches the same level as this one for a while.