Alex Garland had been floating on the edges of Hollywood fame for years before he made it big. He’s a talented writer who is responsible for genuinely great films like ’28 Days Later’, ‘Never Let Me Go’, and ‘Dredd’, but it was the leap to directing that truly put him on the map. 2014’s ‘Ex Machina’ was a critical smash hit as it earned award nominations in various categories at the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and the Oscars. Alex Garland was suddenly a household name and we all waited with bated breath to see what he will do next. Enter ‘Annihilation’.
‘Annihilation’ sees a mysterious governmentally quarantined zone, Area X, being studied to find out what exactly it is. They’ve named it ‘The Shimmer’ after it’s gorgeously shimmery quality when you look at it, but it remains a mystery beyond its name because if you go into The Shimmer, you don’t come back out. Until, that is, Oscar Isaac’s Kane returns from The Shimmer. Cellular biology expert and Kane’s husband, Lena (Portman), is called to help study The Shimmer, and she joins a team of scientists and soldiers to enter The Shimmer on yet another expedition to explore Area X to discover the truths behind it and what exactly happened on Kane’s mission.
Writing that short summary took far too long. ‘Annihilation’ is a film that’s hard to qualify. On the surface, it does seem like a high concept science-fiction, but looking beyond that, it’s a film with tremendous depth and meaning that has spawned hundreds upon hundreds of YouTube videos and articles and film essays studying it. I fear that going into too much detail about the story will ruin the surprise and genuine shocks the film has in store. More than any film I’ve seen recently, ‘Annihilation’ will serve you better if you go in as blind as possible.
What I can talk about, though, is the sheer quality of the film. ‘Annihilation’ is a film that takes a lot of commitment from everyone involved – actors, writers, set designers, special effects artists, editors. It’s a film that has been known to lose a fair few of its viewers because of how complex it becomes as the expedition team head deeper into The Shimmer. It’s a film that plays games with genetic mutations, time and space, using all the elements of the Earth (and elsewhere?) to confound its team and its audience into questioning everything they’re seeing. The end result, however, is a film that truly is firing on all cylinders.
Starting with the actors, the expedition team all leave an impression one way or another. They all have their justifications for going on what’s become a suicide mission, but the film does a masterful job of investigating these characters and letting us understand them as people. Each of the team, from Portman to Thompson to relative newcomer Novotny, gives their character nuances and extra moments where they are just themselves to help them come alive. All of the performances here are terrific; Tessa Thompson’s Josie has a dreamy quality to her as the team’s nature expert, and Dr. Ventress (Jason Leigh) is the most mysterious of the team but Jason Leigh imbues her with a desire for the truth unmatched by anyone else.
Natalie Portman is naturally the stand out given her bigger role in proceedings. She brings all of her talent, her Oscar-winning gravitas to a role that requires dedication and commitment to the extremely high concept ideas that are being thrown at her. Lesser actors would have struggled with the workload of the final act, but here is where Portman excels as she gets closer and closer to finding out answers for her burning questions.
‘Annihilation’, all being well, is sure to earn itself accolade after accolade next year, none of which will be more deserving than for special effects. Given all the blockbusters we’ve had this year – ‘Avengers: Infinity War’, ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’, ‘Deadpool 2’ – ‘Annihilation’ stands tall as the best looking film of 2018 so far. The Shimmer itself is a stunning achievement, an idea that seems impossible to convey on screen after having read the book upon which the film is based, is shown beautifully, and every shot of The Shimmer makes you stop and stare in awe at what Garland and co. have achieved. Within The Shimmer, without spoiling too much, the set designers and the special effects team have pulled no punches as they’re allowed to go as batshit crazy as they want given The Shimmer’s mutating quality. Creatures, plants, buildings are all spliced together to create things we haven’t seen on screen before. The characters are amazed by what they’re seeing, and so are we along with them. Whatever you think of ‘Annihilation’, the visuals and the production are universally agreed to be stunners.
‘Annihilation’, tragically, failed to earn the support from distributors around the world. It was shown in cinemas in North America and China, but the rest of the world were given ‘Annihilation’ via Netflix. Netflix are a fantastic company, providing a platform for filmmakers around the world to show their work to as wide an audience as you can imagine, but ‘Annihilation’ is different. ‘Annihilation’ is a film from an Oscar nominated filmmaker, with multiple A-listers attached, and arguably most importantly, it’s different. It’s a book adaptation, sure, but it’s not a sequel, not attached to a franchise, for all intents and purposes, it’s new. Why are studios so scared of new ideas? Why are they so reluctant to take risks. Paramount, the production company who picked up the rights to distribute the film in North America only, aren’t exactly strapped for cash. They have the box-office behemoth that is ‘Transformers’ under their belts, along with franchises like ‘Shrek’, ‘Kung Fu Panda‘, and ‘Mission Impossible’. Take some risks. Let your audience see something different for a change.
‘Annihilation’ is a film that deserves to be seen on as big a screen as possible. When it was released, I went as far as upgrading my Netflix account to 4K purely to watch a film, and in the week or two before the film’s release I bought a new 4K TV. Did I buy a new, big TV purely to watch ‘Annihilation’ in a medium close to what it deserved? I can neither confirm nor deny that. What I’m saying is – ‘Annihilation’ is worth your time. It is worth sitting down and watching something you almost certainly have never seen before. It’s a miraculous achievement in filmmaking across the board, and it deserves your attention. It’s on Netflix right now. Watch it, experience it, and prepare for it to take over your every thought for some time.
Directed by: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny