‘Annihilation’ horrifically demolishes old boundaries
Written and directed by: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, and Benedict Wong
“Annihilation” – Nobody.
Nobody comes back.
Nobody comes back after entering The Shimmer.
Actually one person does come back, and Lena (Natalie Portman), a doctor – who also spent seven years in the United States Army – feels compelled to enter it. In doing so, she takes movie audiences on a sometimes beautiful, but mostly a deeply unsettling, nightmarish journey in writer/director Alex Garland’s (“Ex Machina” (2014)) visionary science fiction stunner.
The Shimmer is a bizarre phenomenon, a growing permeable force field, created by a meteor that landed near an ordinary lighthouse in Small Coastal Town, U.S.A. Sensors, radar and satellite imagery cannot penetrate it, as The Shimmer seems to bend light. Bleed it, actually, as its environment – from the outside - looks like one of those popular wavy-lined images from a few years ago.
You know the ones.
If you stared at a said image for a few minutes, you could see a bowl a fruit, a Chihuahua or the Mona Lisa, but this most unique on-screen environment provides visuals never really seen before in cinema. The closest comparison is: if Garland carefully grasped the creature from John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982), roped in sick body horror concepts from the mind of David Cronenberg and melded them with a previously-pristine and lush rural location. For Lena, this means that each step inside The Shimmer could produce an unexpected horror, and thankfully, she does not explore this other worldly ecosystem alone.
In fact, she is one of five armed women, and the team carries a dynamic mix of personalities and physical and educational skill sets. The team’s leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), along with Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson) and Cass (Tuva Novotny) accompany the newcomer Lena in this self-described suicide mission, but they have a purpose: to discover the source of the strange spectacle with the sincere hope of safely returning to normal ecology.
Walking through the heavy foliage, the narrative feels – in some ways - like a female version of “Predator” (1987), as these five modern-day explorers could engage in combat at any minute amid the deathly silence and Garland’s industrial, purposely off-putting soundtrack. As refreshing as the gender-twist on the familiar exploratory storyline is, the plot bends again, again and again, as the film does not follow straight hunt-or-be-hunted scenarios. Instead, it moves to its own terrifying and creepy beats, and even though fragments of “Annihilation” can be traced to sci-fi or horror classics of the past, Garland’s creation stands on its own.
In addition to time spent inside The Shimmer, the film periodically reaches out from this outlandish bubble to our own familiar humanity, complete with imperfections, of course, and these unfold across the screen in unexpected ways, especially from the steady, somber dynamics delivered by Portman, Leigh and Oscar Isaac (who also starred in Garland’s “Ex Machina”). These imperfections are physically and philosophically lugged into The Shimmer, and in a place where unpredictability reigns, all bets – and preconceived notions walking into the theatre – are off. “Annihilation” is not a palatable film by a long shot, but it is an unforgettable and unshakable one. Just start at a place of nobody comes back, and then the film demolishes old cinematic boundaries.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.