Annihilation: writer and director Alex Garland’s latest visually stunning sci-fi adventure film
March 21, 2018
Annihilation, writer and director Alex Garland’s latest film, is a visually stunning and cerebral sci-fi adventure. Considered by Paramount execs to be too ‘intellectual’ and ‘complicated’ for mainstream audiences, they gave it a short – as in, short to the point of insulting – domestic release and then dumped it unceremoniously on Netflix for international distribution (as it seems is standard practice these days when the studio smells a commercial dud – see also: The Cloverfield Paradox). But Cloverfield really was a brain-numbing and almost aggressively stupid film; Annihilation, on the other hand, while ultimately flawed and somewhat unsatisfactory, can’t be faulted for its ambition or desire to challenge the viewer.
Our story concerns Lena (Natalie Portman), an ex-army biologist, whose husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), went on an ambiguously defined ‘mission’, only to not return – until he turns up, seemingly out of the blue, one year later. Confused, amnesiac, and unable to answer any question with anything but, “I don’t know,” he’s clearly not quite right. And it’s not long before his condition deteriorates and he falls into a coma. Precisely where her husband has been all this time, we find out, was in ‘the Shimmer’ – an area surrounded by a transparent field that reflects light like a prism, appearing almost like a colourful and slow-moving waterfall. The cause of this miraculous, ominous, and ever-expanding area is unknown. Every person, drone, or signal that has been sent in hasn’t come out. Except, that is, for Kane.
Desperate to find the cause of her husband’s illness and, indeed, to find out what the Shimmer even is, Lena volunteers to join an expedition team aiming to reach the lighthouse at the very centre of it. I won’t say any more but suffice to say complications, both intellectual and violent, ensue.
One of the film’s greatest assets is its all-female team. Before the mission begins and Lena becomes acquainted with the team she asks, “all women?”; to which the response is simply, “scientists.” It’s a quietly revolutionary line that distills the film’s attitude perfectly. There is no explanation, because why should there be?
It helps, too, that these supporting characters are played by a host of good actors: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Notovny. All of which manage to make an impression despite the fact that, ultimately, it is very much Natalie Portman’s movie. Portman, of course, excels, deftly balancing the vulnerability and strength of her character. She also manages to pull off an exceedingly difficult balancing act in the finale, grappling with some pretty out-there material while maintaining something that feels recognizably human and relatable. Which, when dealing with high-concept sci-fi, is often much more difficult than it looks.
The film’s major problem, however, is that for a sci-fi movie, it’s often difficult to discern what precisely it’s about, or what concepts it’s trying to explore. The majority of the film is spent journeying to a place where we hope to get an explanation about what’s going on. There are some thrills to be had for sure – some good creature action and a pleasant dollop of body horror – but it doesn’t feel like an exploration of concepts; more of a ride through a vaguely fantastical world where the flora and fauna are beautiful and dangerous in equal measure.
Ex Machina, Garland’s previous film (and probably the best sci-fi film of the last decade), was very much a feature-length dialogue about the nature and ethics of A.I. that also featured great characters, genre thrills, and, ultimately, pay-off. Annihilation, while still fun, only really begins to explore anything approaching big-idea sci-fi right at the climax. And make no mistake, it certainly is an ambitious and admirably weird climax. Whether it’s a good climax, though, I’m not so sure. If nothing else, Annihilation now holds the dubious honour of being the first film to make me agree with a Paramount exec that an ending might not be commercial enough.
But it’s always exciting to see big, weird, and ambitious sci-fi that tries to challenge its audience, even when it doesn’t completely work. We don’t see enough of it. And we definitely don’t see enough of it with casts of strong, well-written female characters. All of which makes Paramount’s actions – essentially taking the film’s distribution rights hostage unless changes were made – an even bigger bummer. It’s a shame because, like I said, it’s visually stunning and it really deserves to be seen on the big screen. Indeed, it says something rather worrying about the state of contemporary commercial filmmaking when a smart mid-budget genre film headlined by a star of Portman’s calibre can’t get into international cinema screens.
Gee, it’s almost as if mainstream studios care more about profit margins than making challenging and ambitious films.