Director: Alex Garland
Writers: Alex Garland (written for the screen by), Jeff VanderMeer (based on the novel by)
Stars: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson
I decided to watch Annihilation on Netflix for three reasons really. Firstly, after stumbling upon the trailer almost by accident. Secondly, for the immensely positive word of mouth reaction it seem to get. And thirdly, because Alex Garland was involved. This man has written some brilliant films and of course directed the stunning Ex-Machina.
So you see I was intrigued by what I was going to get when I put this on. Netflix is a great platform now and their original feature length content has been steadily improving for a while now but there’s still a little voice in my head screaming, this is going to be crap. Thankfully, I slapped the little voice down and gave it a bash because this was a surprisingly enjoyable watch despite some imperfections which I’ll get into.
It’s adapted off the novel of the same name, the first from author Jeff VanderMeer’s best selling Southern Reach trilogy, which incidentally, I haven’t read and it follows a five strong group of specialists, each with their own unique skill set as they investigate an odd phenomenon that has arisen in southern Florida. The spectacular meteor strike in the films openingdd shots, interspersed between Lena (Natalie Portman) being grilled by government officials, is the primary reason behind this.
Lena is a biology professor and clearly the main protagonist within Annihilation. She provides an insight into what happened inside the mysterious alien Shimmer via the interrogation taking place in the current day. It’s through her that Garland primarily weaves the story. When we first meet her she’s still mourning for her husband a year after his disappearance and assumed death. Then he turns up out of the blue whilst she’s painting the bedroom.
All is not as it seems with Kane (Oscar Isaac) however. He appears to be suffering from severe amnesia, is mentally detached and mumbling away incoherently, not to mention he begins bleeding from the mouth, which signifies his health taking a turn for the worse. It’s really at this point that the film truly begins. Their ambulance is hijacked during the journey to the hospital by a pursuing convoy of government officers and the pair are whisked off to a facility in Florida.
Kane slips into a coma and the truth behind his disappearance and strange behaviour is revealed. He was part of a squad that entered the Shimmer and until that point was the only living thing to make it back out. It’s then revealed that one final scouting party are heading in, and of course, Lena staring out at this mysterious object and driven with a desire to discover exactly what happened to her husband volunteers.
Entering the Shimmer is the aforementioned Lena, a biologist; Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist; Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez, a paramedic; Radek (Tessa Thompson), a physicist and finally, Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), a geologist. They pass through the gigantic, alien bubble and immediately lose a few days, their camp is setup despite nobody remembering doing it and this marks the mere beginning for the plethora of odd circumstances they encounter.
Annihilation isn’t officially considered a horror film but there’s a real amalgamation of genres in there which only adds to the off kilter tone of it all and there’s definitely inspiration garnered from horror amongst them.
It follows one of the familiar horror tropes as their expedition to the lighthouse continues apace with group getting whittled down one by one. But then you’ve also got the odd mutated animals (including a persistent boar), flowers and disfigured corpses lying in the shadows. The video with Kane cutting into his friends adbdomen to find his intestines moving about probably topped the lot.
In terms of those imperfections I touched upon. The CGI for one was a let down. The creatures didn’t convince, in particular the boar which meant the eerie scene with Sheppard’s screams coming from its mouth, shortly after it killed her, failed to have the impact it might’ve done. The periphery characters weren’t involved enough in the plot either. They felt underdeveloped which is a shame because there was few a cracking performances that frankly deserve better.
The structure of the film and overuse of flashbacks, sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks was a little jarring and the romantic backstory of Kane, Lena and the briefly touched upon affair she had felt superfluous to the story and was never really expanded upon.
Now onto some positives. The cinematography was fantastic in places, I thought. Especially the way it utilised the natural setting to add to ominous feeling of uncertainty within the Shimmer. The visuals at the end with the crystalline trees, the bones and the lighthouse on the beach were simply stunning. That wide shot blew me away. As did the shot of the bushes growing to the form of humans in the field. And even just the weird refracted light effects. It reminded me of an oil spill in a puddle of water.
I loved the score. It perfectly complimented everything in this film, marrying well with the theme of corruption, the journey Lena in particular went on and it was haunting. A mere four note main theme, some beautiful strings, the use of acoustic guitar and unorthodox instruments. Hats off to him Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, because it was one of my biggest takeaways.
The performances were superb across the board too. Natalie Portman was phenomenal as Lena. She had the overwhelming majority of screen time and carried the film. Tessa Thompson delivered a quietly powerful portrayal as the quiet, troubled Radek. And I thought Gina Rodriguez was the standout from the rest as the nippy Thorensen. She brought humour in the right places, mothered Radek and then descended into a paranoid mess before having one final explosive scene that outwith the final lighthouse sequence was my favourite in the film.
Oscar Isaac had a glorified cameo role. He was in maybe a combined five minutes in total and his character gave off major Vincent D’Nofrio from Men in Black vibes. You know the hillbilly alien corpse that demanded more sugar. Lena surely through blind happiness at his return just didn’t seem to pick up on his zombification.
Now, without giving anything away, I’ll do my best to get into that final fifteen to twenty minutes.
This film is the definition of strange anyway, it’s the first word that springs to mind when I think of it. But that lighthouse finale with Lena was both strange and stunning. The bizarre mimicking dance with the alien doppelgänger that went on uncomfortably long in combination with the Kane twist probably changed my final opinion on this film in the same way the Vader scene in Rogue One did. The twist wasn’t a shock but was well implemented. That doppelgänger scene was incredible though. I was transfixed by it. Just an awesome piece of cinema.
I can’t possibly my review this film with giving mention to the whitewashing controversy that’s erupted. I’ve never read the books, as I have previously mentioned and therefore am in no position of authority to refute or verify the accusations. All I know is that Alex Garland adapted the screenplay prior to the second books release, in which the characters in question had their background fleshed out and ethnicity confirmed. I will never understand this rush to be offended by every single thing, no matter how innocuous if may be.
In the end though, I did enjoy this film. It wasn’t perfect by any means. There was niggling issues but they never spoiled my enjoyment any. Garland crafted a brilliant adapted screenplay that had a little bit of everything, be it gore and flashes of violence to the sensitivity of some characters, all the way to the damn right odd corruptions the Shimmer creating on the landscape and its inhabitants. He built the tension beautifully, it kept me engrossed to the very end and I loved that bit of ambiguity in the end scene between Kane and Lena.
Highly recommended viewing, especially with it being available on Netflix in the UK.