Annihilation

Director: Alex Garland.
Screenplay: Alex Garland.
Starring: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Benedict Wong, David Gyasi, Cosmo Jarvis, Edward Mannering, Honey Holmes, John Schwab, Sonoya Mizuno.

“It’s not destroying… It’s making something new”

Beginning his career as an author and responsible for the source material of Danny Boyle’s The Beach in 2000, Alex Garland then directly ventured into the film industry by doing screenplay’s – again with Boyle on 28 Days Later and Sunshine – before he eventually took the reigns himself by making his directorial debut with the magnificent science fiction film Ex Machina in 2014. On this evidence, it’s fair to say that Garland has went from strength to strength and his sophomore film, Annihilation, continues that trend. One could even argue that it’s his best work yet.

Plot: Lena (Natalie Portman), a cellular biologist and former soldier, joins an expedition to uncover what happened to her husband Kane (Oscar Issac) who disappeared during a mission inside Area X – a swampland across the Florida coastline that was hit by a meteor and is now a sinister and mysterious phenomenon that blocks all contact with the outside world. During the expedition, Lena discovers a world of mutated landscapes and creatures that threatens everything we have come to know about science and evolution and threatens not only her life but also her sanity.

Based on the first book in the “Southern Reach” trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer we are drip fed the events and conundrum of Annihilation in the three stages of the characters’ exploration: Area X, The Shimmer and The Lighthouse. Such is Garland’s restrained approach, we are kept very much at arms length about what exactly is going on as each of these chapters make little sense. When the film does provide some answers, it only opens it up to even more questions and therein lies the craftsmanship and intrigue of this abstract sci-fi fantasy. What’s most apparent, though, is Garland’s masterful control of pace and mood and it’s his attention to these elements that provide the film with genuinely nightmarish possibilities.

Area X is a foreboding, inhospitable land where the laws of physics and nature have turned in on themselves as the environment mutates with new and fascinating results. There are plants that share human DNA and result in growths of eerie, man-like tree structures and animals that retain and replicate the screams of the victims they’ve killed. Everything refracts as our planet, as we know it, is in the process of evolving into something else entirely. It’s this very concept that makes Garland’s film a terrifying experience. While it’s beautifully shot by cinematographer Rob Hardy and boasts some visually stunning scenes it also has atmosphere in abundance. I’ve seen genre horrors that have failed to capture half of this films palpable feeling of dread and Garland knows exactly how to handle it’s unsettling moments while aided with a hugely effective score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury.

Harbouring the weighty themes of grief, suicide and self-destruction, Garland borrows heavily from the paranoia of John Carpenter’s The Thing and also channels cancer as its psychological device, while many have compared it to Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 metaphysical film, Stalker. Having recently caught up with that, I can definitely see the resemblance. Tarkovsky’s film has a more reflective, philosophical tone to it whereas Garland explores a more scientific nature but the two are certainly bedfellows. Like Stalker, Annihilation refuses to deliver easy answers and some might even leave the film frustrated with its ambiguity. However, it’s this very ambiguous approach that contributes to the film’s allure and fascinating premise. Needless to say, those not willing to put in the effort to work through its many layers will be left sorely disappointed and probably needn’t bother at all. In fact, the film’s production company, Paramount Pictures, voiced their concern on it being too intellectual and complicated for the masses and decided not to release it widely in cinemas for fear of losing money. Instead, a deal was struck with Netflix to internationally distribute it on their streaming service. It’s such a shame that films as bold and inventive as this are never given the confidence and respect they deserve. Paramount have been fools in their handling and marketing of this and I can only hope that the film’s reception doesn’t suffer as a result.

A haunting and genuinely frightening, sci-fi mystery that’s as elliptical and unnerving as Tarkovsky’s Stalker and as trippy as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – with a plethora of other science fiction influences thrown in for good measure. It’s only March but already we have one of the potential best films of 2018. This is a truly bold and intriguing undertaking from Alex Garland and he’s laid down the gauntlet for the forthcoming year.

Mark Walker

Trivia: Director Alex Garland decided not to reread the novel. Instead, he decided to adapt it “like a dream of the book.”

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16 Responses to “Annihilation”

  1. Wow I’m glad you loved it. I was looking forward to this review as some connections to Stalker seemed inevitable and it is one of the mist fundamental films to me. I have to watch “Annihilation”, yet – want to find a right moment for a film like this.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I love Alex Garland films. Yes, even “The Beach”. I’m so happy you have this film high marks–I had no reason to go to the movies until now. Nice review, Mark.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Me too, Cindy. I’m a big fan of Garland’s too. I reckon The Beach is very unfairly criticised. I enjoyed it. That’s said, I think this might be Garland’s best work so far. If you can see it in the cinema then do so but it was only released on Netflix over here.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Really. How did I miss it????
        Cool. I will check Netflix right away. Oh, btw, I like his books,too. His style is easy and absorbing. I think with practice, he will become an exceptional screenwriter.

        Liked by 2 people

      • It was released in theatres in the US for about 3 weeks before Netflix released it internationally. Apparently Paramount Pictures got cold feet and sold the rights to Netflix to try and recoup some money. That’s certainly the way it is for us but I’m not sure if it’s hit US Netflix yet.

        It’s a real shame that Garlands vision has been treated this way. Paramount have sold him out and any possible sequels to this trilogy of novels now looks highly unlikely.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I am really surprised since the success of Ex Machina. It is not on Netflix over here…

        Liked by 2 people

      • Yeah, Paramount got cold feet and opened in theatres in the US and then 3weeks later Netflix took over. It’s marketed terribly.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Great review Mark! I have this in my Netflix queue as I keep hearing amazing things for it and remember being interested when I heard about it a while ago (because I loved Ex Machina). So interested to see what this brings.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. A fascinating review. This is in my Netflix list.

    Liked by 1 person

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