“Annihilation” review

 

There has been a lot of chatter about Alex Garland’s new film, Annihilation, and much of it has been asking why, outside of the United States and China, it has not received a theatrical release (it premiered in the rest of the world on Netflix on March 12th).

In my opinion, though I think the film has flaws, it was certainly deserving of being seen on big screens worldwide, and it’s a great shame that hasn’t happened (apparently it’s due to differences between Paramount Pictures and the film’s producer, Scott Rudin). Nevertheless, for those of us who subscribe to Netflix and have had a chance to see the movie, it’s a fascinating and beautifully made science fiction film that treads a well-worn path in terms of both tone and subject matter, but does so with some style.

Warning: spoilers.

It tells the story of biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) suddenly reappears after going missing a year before, on a top secret mission. He’s acting strangely on his return, and when he becomes violently ill Lena calls an ambulance; but on the way to the hospital she and her husband are intercepted by shadowy government agents who take them to the top secret research facility known as “Area X”, whose psychologist, Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), explains to Lena that Kane was part of an expedition into the nearby “Shimmer”, a strange force-field somewhere on the coast of North America, whose centre is an old abandoned lighthouse. Little is known about the Shimmer except that none of the people so far sent in have come out – with the exception of Kane. Oh, and it’s growing…

So, racked with guilt about her husband as he lies in intensive care, Lena decides to join an all-female team of scientists led by Dr Ventress to explore the Shimmer, and find out what’s happening inside.

This is an intriguing premise for a story, no doubt, though the pedant in me couldn’t help but question the lack of common sense the characters display – why, when the Shimmer has been growing for three years, and countless teams have disappeared inside, would you send yet another team of researchers into it? Wouldn’t they use drones or something? And if you’re going to send people, at least put them in hazmat suits, right? Honestly, anyone would think these folks have never seen Eddie Izzard’s routine about the forest of death and blood:

The Shimmer certainly looks beautiful (location shooting was in Windsor and Norfolk), and the vegetation and bizarre animals (a result of the Shimmer’s strange mutating effects) are a credit to production designer Mark Digby and his team. The human/bear hybrid was especially disturbing (and surely owes a debt to the alzabo, a bear-like creature who speaks in the voice of its victims in Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun”), and there is a scene involving human intestines which is not for the squeamish. As the team get closer and closer to the lighthouse, they become increasingly unhinged, and the final confrontation between Lena and the alien presence there is an extraordinary, bravura sequence which reminded me of Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin”.

Like that film, “Annihilation” is apparently only loosely based on its source novel (by Jeff VanderMeer), and made me curious to know how and why Garland has deviated from the original story. In sci-fi movies, the theme of human beings being physically and/or psychically altered by encounters with extra-terrestrial life goes back at least as far as The Quatermass XperimentThe Thing from Another World and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and on through Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Ridley Scott’s Alien, the work of David Cronenberg, and the recent Netflix adaptation of James S.A. Corey’s Expanse novels:

So Annihilation isn’t doing anything spectacularly original in that sense. But its predominantly female cast (Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny & Tessa Thompson play the other three scientists assigned to Ventress’s team) , and unsympathetic heroine (Portman’s character has been having an affair, and it is implied that this may have pushed her husband to embark on such a dangerous mission) are major plus points for a Hollywood blockbuster (at one point Kane tells Lena, before he leaves, that at least they will be in the same hemisphere, and so when he’s gone she can “look up and see the same stars”, and she angrily retorts that she has better things to do in his absence than just stare at the stars), and thus, disappointingly, may also have contributed to Paramount’s getting cold feet about an international release (see Helen Lewis’s detailed discussion of this in the New Statesman).

But though it boasts a superb cast and creative team, and I wanted very much to like it, I fear the film left me a little cold in the end. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s not a romcom, after all – but I felt that its precarious balancing act between the commercial imperative to deliver an exciting slice of commercial cinema, and its makers’ desire to reach for Some Deeper Meaning, never fully resolved itself. That said, we need science fiction and fantasy that has ambitions beyond simple audience titillation, and for that I salute this film, and heartily recommend that you see it if you can.

 

Thank you for reading. For more of my writing please go here.

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