Alex Garland’s sophomore directorial effort Annihilation begins with solder-turned-scientist Lena (Natalie Portman) dealing with the sudden reappearance of her military husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who has been missing for a year. Only Kane seems changed; he is quiet, vague and, to put it mildly, very unwell. With Kane alarmingly coughing up blood, the couple are detained in the mysterious government-run Area X.
Here, psychologist Dr. Ventress (a weirdly sleepy performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh) explains to Lena that they are on the outskirts of the ‘Shimmer’, an ever-expanding area of mutated Florida swampland engulfed in a bubble-like membrane from which no one has returned – no one, that is, except Kane. Desperate for answers and looking for a way to save her husband, Lena joins an all-female team headed to the lighthouse where the Shimmer supposedly originated.
With plot elements and weighty themes with parallels to Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse (1927) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979), it’s no surprise that Annihilation was dubbed ‘too intellectual’ for cinema release – a phrase cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike would no doubt have rolled their eyes at, albeit for different reasons. However, while it’s true that the film does go a little deeper than your average mainstream sci-fi, for most of its runtime Annihilation resembles a bona fide blockbuster. There’s parallels to be drawn with Jurassic Park (1993); first in the film’s ability to provoke wonder (the kaleidoscopic rendering of the Shimmer and its bizarre happenings are nothing short of beautiful) and then profound horror.
Accordingly – or perhaps oddly, given the impeccable craft of Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) – Annihilation suffers from some of the same problems of the generic blockbuster. Compositional and lighting problems aside, the screenplay is a little shaky. Characters are liable to clunky exposition dumps, and a framing device serves to hamper the film’s tension and pacing and too obviously spell out its themes.
In fact, Garland, known principally as screenwriter, is at his best when he lets his images speak for themselves. This is particularly true of the astonishing, nearly non-verbal third act, in which the Shimmer’s unruly mutations seem to infect the DNA of the film itself. It’s in this last act that the film’s visual, sonic and thematic brilliance becomes apparent, as Annihilation tackles the mysteries of the Shimmer with yet more enigma, and with dazzling originality for something so ostensibly commercial.
‘Can you describe its form?’ a scientist asks Lena. She doesn’t know how to, and understandably so. Annihilation is a film best experienced – and what a fantastic experience it is.
Image: Netflix / Paramount Pictures