A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.
Annihilation is a science fiction horror film written and directed by Alex Garland, based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. The film stars Natalie Portman as biologist and former soldier Lena. Her Army Special Forces husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) mysteriously returns home after having gone missing during a mission nearly a year before. Soon afterwards he becomes violently ill and slips into a coma. They are taken by government forces to the secretive Area X, which studies a shimmering electromagnetic field that has engulfed a wide area of land after an object from outer-space struck land. Lena finds out that this is where Kane disappeared and joins an expedition team led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), along with paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radeck (Tessa Thompson), and anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuba Novotny), into “the Shimmer” to find answers.
I really don’t know how I was fortunate enough to catch wind of buzz for this film, because apparently there isn’t much at all. It is only thanks to the recommendation of a friend and a member of a podcast I listen to happening to bring it up that I even got interested in checking it out. I have owned the book since September, but actually intended to read that first and skip seeing it in the theatre altogether. I am glad I changed my mind. This film, which I was intrigued by yet had middling expectations of, managed to soundly blow me away.
On its surface it may sound like a rather standard science fiction premise, but I found nearly all facets of the film are so well executed that such a thing really doesn’t matter. The story is a slow build, giving us a glimpse of its aftermath through the frame of Lena being debriefed, but otherwise taking its time to introduce the audience to her before she goes to Area X, her relationship with Kane, and hints at factors that motivate the her that will be fleshed out as the story progresses. It’s never in a hurry to dump information on the viewer nor does it spell things out too much. It approaches its subject thoughtfully in a way that allows the audience to marvel at some of the beauty and strangeness beheld, as well as build tension and discomfort when needed.
I found this most effective in the film’s dealings with the nature of the Shimmer itself. At the onset we learn that, despite three years of attempted research and observation, there has been no definitive explanation reached as to what is going on within it or what is causing it. There are a number of hypotheses, but none have been confirmed. We are only able to learn about it as the characters venture into the Shimmer themselves and make their own observations. While some light is shed on what is going on and the effect that the it has on the environment and those within, a lot of its nature is still left nebulous and not completely explained. It struck a great balance between unveiling some of the mystery and leaving us still with a lot of questions.
In keeping with the nature of the Shimmer the film has a dreamlike quality to it throughout, sometimes to a fantastical effect and at other times nightmarish, blending the two along the way. This is often not just in the visual effects and the strange and frightening things encountered by the expedition, but also the score, sound design, and the way that shots are framed or just linger. Settings otherwise unrelated will look strangely familiar and physical anomalies pop up that you may not catch the first time around. This created a strong sense of unease, as you may not consciously notice it, but your brain will. What’s most effective is that these smaller details are not always directly addressed by the characters, it is up to an attentive audience to notice what they film is showing but not telling you. I’m eager to sit down for repeat viewings.
Explicit horror does not dominate the film, but there are some choice moments of body horror and violence that leave a lasting impression. They’re made more shocking by how conservatively the film utilizes violence and gore, not taking advantage of every opportunity to make a grotesque spectacle. As a result, when these moments do come around they pack a far greater punch. Some of the creatures, especially one in particular, are wonderfully haunting and imaginative in their design. Other times it is just the environment, which may not represent a direct threat, but has creepier implications.
There’s not much more I feel I can say about Annihilation that wouldn’t be giving too much away. It’s a fantastic science fiction film with thought-provoking themes and motifs, a wonderful cast that does a great job of bringing their characters to life, and a captivating story that takes the audience on a journey into the strange. I can’t remember the last time I watched a film that had me so completely absorbed and marveling at the events on screen. It’s unfortunate to hear that it’s apparently not doing so well, nor did the studio seem to have much faith in it, as it is only seeing a theatrical release in North America. The rest of the world can see it on Netflix starting March 12. If you love heady science fiction that’s both visually marvelous and provocative I implore you to go see this film.