MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Sci-Fi Horror/ Stars: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, David Gyasi/ Runtime: 115 minutes
I would like to start this review movie goers by doing something unorthodox. That being said, let’s wind the clocks back to the long, long, ago year that was 2015 (gasp). This was the year where, among many other noteworthy items, a man by the name of Alex Garland made one of the most enjoyable directorial debuts in recent memory: an intense and brilliant little sci-fi ode known as Ex Machina that has managed to thrill and engage audiences ever since. Now to be fair, while Mr. Garland was hardly a novice to the Hollywood scene, seeing as he previously had penned the fantastic scripts for 28 Days Later and Sunshine among others, it was like being in the director’s chair revealed a whole new dimension of the talents that Garland could offer up. Indeed the key take away from that moment was that Alex Garland with that one film showed us all he was capable of not only telling captivating and quite brilliant tales, but that he could also make them his own with a truly gorgeous, yet detailed voice.
Now as we come back to the present day, please keep your hands and feet in until the time machine comes to a complete stop, we see that Alex Garland’s second work as a director is here for our viewing pleasure. Yet while it’s not specifically an original creation, due to being an adaptation of book, it is still a joy to confirm that this man was not a one-hit wonder kind of director. Indeed when you are able to arm a film with a stellar cast, rich themes about the nature of humanity, and a true appreciation for intensity they will work together in magnificent ways, but in the case of Annihilation they simply serve to make this nothing less than yet another truly phenomenal piece of work from a man we have come to expect exactly that from.
The plot is as follows: inspired by the book of the same name, Annihilation reveals the experiences of a young woman named Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and former military officer who finds herself tasked with a terrifying exploratory mission. This is due to the fact that approximately a year after the disappearance of her also-in-the-military husband (Oscar Isaac), Lena unexpectedly finds him back in their house yet shortly thereafter he falls seriously ill as well as finds himself completely unable to explain anything about where he’s been for the past year. Thus it is during her search for answers to this puzzle that Lena finds herself being brought to a mysterious facility known as Area X that has been established on the border of an unusually-infested territory referred to only as The Shimmer. It is here where Lena learns that those stationed at Area X, including her husband, have spent years studying the strange phenomenon, but ultimately have failed to learn much if anything. This may or may not be because of a tiny detail known as the fact that anything that passes through the pearlescent barrier usually never returns. That said an undeterred Lena, needing answers about what happened to her husband so maybe she can help him get better, decides to volunteer to be a member of the latest expedition which finds her teamed up with a group of four other women (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny) that are ready to make the same leap she is for their own individual yet unique reasons. Yet while each of the members brings a particular specialty to the operation they, upon entering The Shimmer, quickly find out that absolutely nothing could ever have prepared them for what’s waiting on the other side…..
Now I feel it is safe to say that the building of this unusual otherworldly environment is an absolutely stunning and transporting experience made all the more impressive by the fact that the film not once takes the audience away from the planet Earth. Instead, due to this creative constriction, the story wisely lets the filmmaker go as far out as he wants in designing the world beyond the walls of The Shimmer. Thus like any truly great sci-fi storyteller, Garland manages to not only dig deep, and define his world, but he also manages to create and fashion life in a way that is really truly unlike anything seen before. Plus with each minute of film that passes by the work that is on display in this film courtesy of the design and effects teams is utterly breathtaking in how everything we are treated to seems to be equal parts a representation not only of the beauty of life, but of the horror of death as well. Indeed while it is an entirely different aesthetic than the one put on display for audiences in Ex Machina, the aesthetic in Annihilation is still equally as mesmerizing, and the integration of both the practical and digital in terms of effects is just as magical as well.
Now with some truly bold and even outright daring themes about human nature as well as how we as a species cause our own destruction wrapped into its narrative as well as a finale that is clearly designed to promote what will be a main course of discussion with a side order of debate for dessert, Annihilation is a film that definitely wears the label of “heady sci-fi” with pride to spare. Yet don’t think for a second that contemplation totally outweighs thrills therein. This is because while there is certainly a deliberateness to the storytelling, thus allowing you and the rest of the audience to fully absorb the world within The Shimmer, this is also a movie that feels like at no point is it ever more than 10 minutes away from scaring the absolutely, bloody hell out of you. Indeed with those kind of plates having to be spun for this film it doesn’t take a genius to recognize that you are watching a truly complex balancing act. This is because if a lesser director were to attempt this kind of film and they tipped the plates too far in either direction it would easily undercut the total product and prevent it from being executed to its fullest potential. Thankfully this is not Alex Garland’s first rodeo with this kind of material and he manages to just knock this film out of the park, and deliver for himself another home run to add to his filmography.
Of course, Annihilation not only has some immense talent working behind the camera, but it also has a wonderful ensemble to play out the story in front of it. This of course starts with Natalie Portman who is front and center as Lena, and while Portman does a terrific job of portraying Lena’s intelligence, bravery, as well as her hidden flaws and regrets Portman also manages to find herself supported by some of the best actors working today. Of course we get to witness this firsthand as we see Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez doing wonderful work as they manage to play against type and really embrace and become the personalities of the meek Josie and aggressive Anya while Jennifer Jason Leigh also delivers a terrific performance as the hard-edged leader of the team Dr. Ventress. Indeed even Oscar Isaac and Benedict Wong get to do some showing off of their wonderful acting abilities even if their roles are more limited in size and screen time. Thus by the time the film is done you see that there is not a single weak link in this acting chain and Garland and the winning script really have managed to bring out the best in each and every one of these extremely talented thespians.
All in all in an age when cinematic sci-fi tends to be more consumable than cerebral I think it should be time to appreciate the intellectual sci-fi films that come few and far between when we are lucky to get them. Indeed while Denis Villeneuve, with his work on the Amy Adams-starrer Arrival as well as Blade Runner 2049 has managed to emerge as an important name to constantly look out for on this front, I feel that if you look right beside him you will see Mr. Alex Garland, and if Ex Machina was not enough to convince you then I feel Annihilation will be the perfect proof that this man is a real deal as both director and visionary. Indeed not only does Garland create a world in this film that you will fall right into, but it is also one that proves to be so fascinating that I promise you’ll want to investigate it over and over for years to come. On a scale of 1–5 I give Annihilation a solid 4 out of 5.