Contains some mild/implied spoilers
I’m a huge fan of writer-director Alex Garland, whose Ex Machina was one of my favourite films of 2014. So I was a bit irked to find that I’d missed his follow-up offering Annihilation which for the life of me I couldn’t remember doing the rounds at the local cinema.
I was somewhat mollified to find out that in fact the film apparently bypassed a theatrical release in the UK and was offered here instead exclusively via Netflix. Since I’m not a subscriber to that particular streaming service, I would have had to wait for its release on old fashioned DVD and Blu-ray home media in any case, which it turned out happened to be earlier this month.
The film, based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, features Natalie Portman as Lena, a former US Army soldier who is now a leading cellular-biology professor. She’s in mourning for her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who left on a top secret covert military mission a year ago and hasn’t been heard of again since. Except now he turns up, a shell of the man she remembers and also seriously ill. Lena sets out to find out what happened to him in the hope that she can find a cure, and her search takes her into a strangely warped area of Florida land in which the natural laws of reality no longer apply after a meteorite impacted the shoreline three years previously.
Like Garland’s earlier film, this is an assured piece of direction with some lovely visuals that are both beautiful and terrible to look at, often at the same moment. For much of the movie’s 110-minute running time the effects of ‘the Shimmer’ are kept subtle and low key and all the better for it, before the final 20 minutes cranks things up and splurges with some imaginative CGI (and the end title sequence is also wonderful and would make a terrific screen saver.) There’s an arresting ‘ballet’ sequence towards the end that allows Portman to flex her Black Swan muscles which is simultaneously compelling and nerve-shredding to watch.
But elsewhere Annihilation is less successful than Ex Machina, struggling at times with pace and plotting. That’s not to say it’s anything less than ambitious and engrossing throughout, just that it doesn’t feel as flawless and effortless as the 2014 film. It comes across as being a little bit too smug and self-satisfied, and it wears that sense of pretension with a heaviness that was absent from Ex Machina. This film is both too clever for its own good and yet at the same time not clever enough, with ‘surprise’ twists and turns all too obvious from the early stages and simultaneously taking far too long to develop to fruition and delivery, all of which makes for some awkward mid-section longueurs.
Partly that’s because Annihilation wears its science fiction influences quite openly. The first section in which Lena is co-opted into a military-scientific investigation of the anomaly plays out rather like 2016’s Arrival, but once Lena and her team enter the Shimmmer the tone switches to more conventional horror tropes, the area’s disruption of plant and human cells leading to twisted morphologies straight out of Alien and John Carpenter’s version of The Thing. Then towards the end a major shift of music and sound design signals a wholesale switch to high-concept science fiction with more than a hint of 2001: A Space Odyssey to it (including title cards at the start of each distinct section of the film). However it’s actually closer to Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic diptych Stalker and Solaris, the latter also an influence on Garland’s sophomore motion picture screenplay, 2007’s Sunshine directed by Danny Boyle. And maybe it was just me but the finale contained a hint of elements from Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 Under the Skin.
It’s very hard to deliver such metaphysical existential concepts on screen in a medium that is far better at pulling off superheroes and spaceships than it is at delivering an extended treatise on the self-destruction inherent in the human condition, whether in the physical sense (cancer, radiation poisoning, old age, deadly viruses) or mental (dementia, psychosis, grief, suicidal depression). All the members of Lena’s team exhibit some such element, with team leader Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) suffering from a terminal tumour, paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez) becoming increasingly unhinged and paranoid, geomorphologist Cass Shepherd (Tuva Novotny) mourning the death of her child from leukaemia, and physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson) suffering from years of self-harm.
All five members of the team are women – which is genuinely fabulous to see – and in fact there’s only one significant male character in the entire film. Kane is seen largely in Lena’s flashbacks in which he is the perfect husband, but that’s a case of rose-tinted memories and the glimpses we get of him in rediscovered video footage paint a picture of a much more honest, flawed figure. There’s also David Gyasi as Lena’s colleague Daniel, and Benedict Wong as the hazmat-suited Lomax whose interrogation of Lena forms the framing sequence for the film, but they are largely incidental figures. Even so, there isn’t a single performance that isn’t top notch with Portman, Leigh and Isaac particularly to be commended.
Why an all-female team is considered a relevant approach to the latest exploration into the Shimmer is unclear (is there something in the male make-up that makes them more susceptible to the distortion effect? We see nothing to suggest that anyone thinks that’s the case) as is why these five damaged individuals are the best selection available for the mission even if that’s the case. On the contrary, there are a lot of psychological red flags that would rule most of them out. At least Lena is a trained solider with firearms experience which the others seem to lack – even though you’d expect it to be essential before venturing into a high-risk area that had already wiped out an elite unit of experienced Army soldiers.
There are other areas where the script doesn’t quite hold things together as tightly as it needs to. Early on there’s a strong suggestion that the Shimmer is also disrupting time within its sphere of influence but this idea seems to be dropped with little time apparently having passed in the ‘real’ world while the team is inside. The ending is really abrupt and rather convenient – a deus ex machina, you might say – and is then undermined by a final scene coda which feels painfully obvious and just the sort of ending you were hoping the film would have the wit to avoid.
Elsewhere the film is commendably subtle and ambiguous, failing to provide easy answers or explain its purpose. You’d be forgiven for missing the significance of an organic growth on the wall of a drained swimming pool for example, even after the discovery of a tell-tale knife in the water. And if you’re expecting a detailed bit of exposition about the origins and purpose of the Shimmer then you’ll be sorely disappointed.
But while these holes may be flaws to some, they stand out only because of the beauty and precision of much of the rest of the film. I can understand complaints from the test screenings that the film is “too intellectual” and “too complicated” which is why it was presumably switched to Netflix, but don’t let that or the uninspired direct-to-DVD one-word title put you off giving it a try. The worst thing that can happen is that it might force you to think some deep and profound thoughts, and there are worse things in life than that.
Oh, and former US president Barack Obama has cited Annihilation as one of his favourite films of 2018. That recommendation alone must surely be worth a hundred of any Taking the Short View opinions!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Annihilation is out on DVD and Blu-ray on the UK. The DVD has no special extras but the Blu-ray has bonus content and featurettes.