Movie Review: ‘Annihilation’
Starring: Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Jennifer Jason Leigh
Plot: A group of 5 scientists volunteer for a mission into The Shimmer, a mysterious area where the laws of nature have trained.
Alex Garland is one of the best writers currently working in science fiction. Even though, it seems like many refer to him as a novelist, first and foremost, I mostly know him for his great screenwriting work: Dredd, Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and Never Let Me Go. It is a great variety of heady explorations into the human condition and B-movie smash’em ups, casting a pretty wide net to all sci-fi fans. His directorial debut, Ex Machina, turned a lot of heads, and if there is any justice in the world, Annihilation will do the same.
It stars Natalie Portman as a military veteran biologist, Lena. Her husband (Garland reteaming with Ex Machina co-star, Oscar Issac), still active duty, has mysteriously reappeared after being declared dead while on a secret mission. When he starts convulsing, emergency services are interrupted by military goons, and thus Lena gets sucked into the secret and mysterious mission he was on. He, along with a team of other soldiers, where sent into The Shimmer, a weird optical illusion barrier that keeps growing, warping the territory within it. Lena’s husband is the first to come back alive, barely. A new team, of scientists this time, are prepared to go in, and Lena, motivated by her professional curiosity as a scientist and her dedication to her husband and what happened to him, can’t help but take the opportunity to join them.
The Shimmer is equally gorgeous and terrifying. It’s border shimmers (there really is no other word to describe it) in mid air like oil in water, a sort of rainbow smear in the sky. Just beyond it lies an environment that sort of looks like ours (a forest, a swamp, a beach, and even a few man-made buildings that got swallowed up as it got bigger), however, it is alien in so many ways. Gators with shark like teeth. A variety of flowers all blooming from the same stalk. Deer-like animals with leafy branches for antlers. And that is the normal stuff. It gets creepier and more absurd the further they trek in.
Early test screenings and critics have made comparisons to Kubrick’s sci-fi head-scratcher, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I can see why. It is a true expedition into a metaphysical no man’s land that seems to know exactly how to screw with your head. Monster movies are usually about a challenge to our place on the food chain. Annihilation takes one giant step backward and challenges our place on the intelligence chain. However, unlike 2001, it definitely tries to scratch the traditional narrative, at least a lot more than 2001 ever did. The dramatic tension rests solely on Portman’s character and what danger she is in. Unlike her teammates, she has a reason to go back: her husband. The trek is intermittently interrupted to flashback to her life with her husband and a few moments when he was gone for his mission. It paints a bigger and technically better picture of Portman’s character, but her ability to reach out and touch the audience, forcing them to empathize with her, is pretty well-honed and could have worked without it.
Annihilation and Blade Runner 2049 together are this fascinating blockbuster arthouse sci-fi duo, which is what I want desperately from cinema, but based on the box office, it is not something the audience at large want to invest in. Sadly, this is not a trend in the making, which is too bad, because these movies are like a cinema epi-pen. They bring you back to life.