Directed by Alex Garland
Screenplay by Alex Garland based on “Annihilation” by Jeff VanderMeer
Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac
“We aren’t living in the past or the present. This is the future.”
I find it amusing that science fiction films that I enjoyed as a kid, and in large part as an adult, tend to focus on a dystopian future, where the dregs of society hang in the balance as power becomes concentrated among a few. It is only recently where dystopic science fiction has become science fact. It doesn’t need to look drab or shabby to present real world challenges to the future of the human race.
This is the beauty of Alex Garland’s latest film, “Annihilation.”
As with his prior directorial effort “Ex Machina,” Mr. Garland layers his film with an obscure viscerality, replete with finely tuned twists and turns. His characters, especially Natalie Portman’s Lena, are non-descript. Some might choose to use the word ‘bland’ to describe Lena and the other characters that inhabit “Annihilation.” The non-descript nature serves a purpose as the story unfolds at its own pace, layering in detail after detail.
In the near future, on Earth, a zone labeled “The Shimmer” appears. The government has sent in several expedition teams to explore, but with no result. Lena is a part of the latest expedition team sent in to determine the zone’s purpose. The deeper the expedition pushes through “The Shimmer”, the greater the danger. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Oscar Isaac and Benedict Wong co-star.
The level of detail that permeates Mr. Garland’s script, based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel still boggles my mind. There is a predisposition to dismiss the film because the ‘wrapper’ feels very plain, a reference to my earlier comment about the characters. Their situations feel one dimensional as well, but, at the same time, they are very much alive.
While Mr. Garland gets the directorial credit, the ensemble does such an amazing job. There’s a genuine level of stern control that Ms. Portman exhibits, almost a clinical level of control, while Ms. Leigh holds her emotions just at the edge of losing control. Their pairing makes for an interesting dichotomy. Ms. Thompson and Ms. Novotny are smaller players in the overall arc of the story, but their journeys are no less compelling as each face their own greatest fears. Ms. Rodriguez is the most interesting in the expedition. Her take on Anya is unsurprising, and yet her purpose in the story is because she is the audience echoing our own worst nightmares.
In an unfamiliar environment, sound is as important as sight. The score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is otherworldly, yet familiar and it carries the eerie feeling exceptionally well. The sound design is its own animal, contributing to the otherworldly experience. Rob Hardy’s cinematography is not to be overlooked. Mr. Garland’s use of light in the film is a key element in the story, especially deep in the forest.
Technical details aside, this film embraces the narrative risks it takes head-on. Mr. Garland and his cast are to be commended. Certainly, his producer, Scott Rudin also deserves some of those kudos as well. The story might very well confound some audiences. It might turn off other audiences.
And that’s okay. “Annihilation” is very much like cracking open a walnut or the horror of walking down the stairs on Christmas morning, realizing that the nightmare of getting a lump of coal in your stocking was true. Mr. Garland proves that there are times when you crack them open, there is a gem on the inside, just waiting to be discovered. You will remember this film long after you’ve stopped watching it.
4 out of 4 stars.