Annihilation: A Spellbinding Cerebral Sci-fi Headtrip
Review by Aaron Haughton
Alex Garland (Ex Machina) has set the high bar for 2018 films with his latest effort, Annihilation, a confounded and spellbinding cerebral sci-fi thriller that will have you reeling in a tripped out fever dream in the best possible way. Garland draws influence from the likes of Tarkovsky, Cronenberg, Carpenter and Kubrick (amongst others) without ever feeling derivative, and crafts an experience that feels uniquely his own. The film serves as an excellent conversation piece, and does what all great cerebral sci-fi films do: present you with information without spelling anything out, allowing the audience to come to their own conclusions about what the film means to them. In short: Annihilation is a perfect slice of cerebral sci-fi that will stick to you like resin for days, keeping your mind turning, and it's a must-see on the largest screen possible.
Loosely based on Jeff VanderMeer's best-selling first book of the same name from his Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation follows Lena (played by Natalie Portman), a biologist who signs up for a dangerous and secretive expedition after her husband, Kane (played by Oscar Issac), mysteriously returns home after a year and suddenly falls deathly ill. In an effort to hopefully save him, Lena, along with 4 other female scientists (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriquez, Tuva Novotny, and Tessa Thompson) venture into the enigmatic zone known as Area X or The Shimmer, where the laws of nature don't apply and no one, aside from Kane, has ventured back.
First off, I have to applaud Alex Garland for not spoon feeding audiences and for eclipsing himself in every possible way. He takes the same feeling of dread from Ex Machina and turns the dial to 11, resulting in a much more violent, disturbing, and thought-provoking offering than any of his previous projects. Secondly, I have to give producer Scott Rudin a standing ovation for refusing to dumb down the film and for fighting to keep it in its original form. It's a shame that the international distribution rights had to be sold to Netflix as a compromise because this film really does deserve the theater experience in every way; however, those located in international territories will have the privilege of rewatching the film multiple times without having to shell out the price of admission each time — this is a film that is definitely enhanced with each new viewing, and the subtleties of Garland and company's mastery will become more and more apparent as you continue to venture into The Shimmer with each rewatch.
For those fans expecting to get a faithful adaptation of the novel, check those expectations at the door because you will be sorely disappointed. Aside from the basic premise and shared disorientation, the book and novel are completely different experiences. One of the changes, which is a smart choice on Garland's part, was to include names and backgrounds on each of the characters, which not only allow the audience to connect with the characters a bit, but also reinforce the film's main theme of the human tendency and penchant for self-destruction. In the novel, the characters do not know anything about one another — even each other's names — and they only refer to each other by title, such as biologist or psychologist. Also, certain characters' motives in the novel are abandoned in the film adaptation, which allows the film's narrative to tread a wholly new path.
The film is visually stunning, and the set and production designs are equally phenomenal. The film is teeming with curious flora and monstrous fauna that slightly skew our perceived notion reality, making things seem naturally unnatural (or vice versa), which help The Shimmer feel all the more believable. The incorporation of practical effects alongside CGI harks back to the golden era late 90s and brings to mind the practical effects of Rick Baker (Videodrome, American Werewolf in London) and Rob Bottin (The Thing, Robocop).
The Shimmer is a peculiar place full of iridescent soap bubble-esque colorations that serve as a constant reminder that no matter how close to reality the effected zone may appear, it is most certainly otherworldly. The things that happen in The Shimmer almost defy logic, and the zone operates under a kind of dream logic, stealing the consciousness of any plants and animals/humans that inhabit the area and skewing them into both beautiful and ghastly mutations. If you pay close attention, you'll notice pieces that appeared in the film's reality outside Area X are seeping into The Shimmer, amongst other oddities between the characters. Each of our female leads are broken in some way, and them entering The Shimmer represents them facing their broken past, which could either destroy them or liberate them.
While the concept of this strange zone definitely brings to mind the Andrei Tarkovsky classic Stalker, Annihilation has more in common with Tarkovsky's other sci-fi classic Solaris, especially when it comes to the "hallucinations" of The Shimmer. I use the quotes around hallucinations because these instances are shared amongst the 5 female leads and most hallucinations tend to take place in the mind of one individual. Such is the same with Tarkovsky's Solaris (also adapted from a book of the same name) with regard to the scientists' "visitors". However, the main thing that both Annihilation and Solaris share in the concept of an imperfect god, a deity who has no grand design and creates things almost at random without an incline to the consequences or effects of its actions. This idea is reinforced by Kane and Lena's conversation in bed about how god makes mistakes, how a genealogical flaw in our DNA causes our bodies to deteriorate, as opposed to remaining immortal. This idea reinforces the film's themes of self-destruction, which coarse and flow beautifully throughout, and also seems to poke at our human need and tendency to impose meaning, logic and reason to things that are inherently devoid of any rational explanation.
Garland sets up and primes us for the bizarre anti-logic of Area X with masterful effect. The framing of Lena's house has the sun shining through the background just as we commonly see it in The Shimmer. Also, when Kane returns mysteriously and he and Lena have a conversation at their kitchen table, Garland focuses on the glass of water between them. Their fingers touch on the other side of the glass, causing the image to distort and create "something completely new". The glass is also curved, so the image we see is refracted, which is exactly what The Shimmer does.
Garland lays what would be the mystery of another film (people enter a dangerous environment and the audience wonders who will make it out alive) directly on the table. Instead, the mystery he sets up is more about what the cause of The Shimmer is, and what the entity wants, if anything at all, which also circles back to the shared themes with Solaris. So often with invasion films, the alien creatures want to either destroy us or save us, and I like that Garland adds to that conversation: what if it wants nothing at all and has no plan whatsoever? Ultimately, the film's meaning is left for you to decide; although, I do think that there is a correct way of reading it, which I will not spoil here.
In short: the film is an absolutely amazing masterpiece. The pacing is a bit slow, as cerebral sci-fi tends to be, but the plot builds enough mystery and is filled with so much oddity and action that it will keep you wholly engaged, even if don't really know what to make of it when all's said and done. The last 15 minutes of the film are utterly jaw dropping, and must be witnessed on the big screen. The score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (of Portishead) is a nice touch (even though I didn't care much for the acoustic guitar instrumentations), especially towards the end. I cannot recommend this highly enough. It will keep you thinking long after your viewing experience concludes, which is something very few films do, and its experience is viscerally gripping.
Rating: 4.5 mutated creatures outta 5.
What did you think? Did you feel like the film was too enigmatic? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments sections below, and as always, remember to viddy well!