Annihilation, the second film by writer/director Alex Garland, is one of the boldest, most uncompromising science-fiction films of recent years. Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, the “King of Weird Fiction” according to The New Yorker, it was ultimately consigned to a Netflix-only release in the UK by Paramount due to concerns that it was too strange, too challenging, too off-putting to appeal to mainstream audiences and profit from its $40 million budget. These concerns were not unwarranted, but this is all the more reason to dive in and experience it for yourself.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist lecturing at Johns Hopkins, and still mourning the disappearance of her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) one year ago – that is, until he suddenly appears in the doorway of her living-room, stony-faced and unresponsive. Soon enough, the authorities come after them and Lena finds herself in a mysterious facility run by the enigmatic Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) on the edge of Floridian marshland surrounded by a rainbow-tinged barrier known as the Shimmer. Nobody knows what the Shimmer is or what it does, but radio signals can’t get in or out, and something strange seems to be happening to the nature within. Many expeditions have been undertaken into the Shimmer since it appeared 3 years earlier but only Kane, having been on the last one, has returned, and now he is critically ill. To save her husband, Lena must join Ventress and a team of other scientists (Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson) to venture beyond the Shimmer and find out what happened to Kane and his team, what the Shimmer is, and how to stop its expansion.
These are the bare bones of a film in which information is given out sparingly and the motivations of the protagonists are kept as ambiguous as possible. The narrative is framed as a flashback from Lena being interviewed in quarantine some time after the expedition, and within her narrative there are further flashbacks showing her relationship with Kane. Such a structure has its weaknesses – some may be annoyed that the fates of various characters are spelled out at the very beginning of the film, for example – but by weaving these three iterations of Lena together, Garland is able to give his protagonist substance in as few strokes as possible, without resorting to bland exposition or incongruous emotional outpourings. Portman modulates her performance wonderfully to fill in these details: the tinge of sadness in her stoic, almost business-like stance beyond the Shimmer is brought out by an almost traumatised deadness in the interrogations, and sparkling chemistry with Isaac in the flashbacks. The performances are, in fact, strong across the board, with Jason Leigh’s strangely impassive Ventress racking up the emotional tension against sensitive, sympathetic turns by Novotny and Thompson. This foundational emphasis on character imbues Annihilation’s philosophical concern with the self-destructive nature of humanity with the emotion it needs to make engaging cinema. Arguably, it is this aspect that sets Annihilation apart from Alex Garland’s previous work, Ex Machina, in which the dense philosophical content largely took precedence over the characterisation.
The environment into which Garland places his characters is no less important or impressive. He never allows his setting to settle into a single tone, moving fluidly between moments of beauty and danger. Glorious outcrops of flowers next to rainbow-tinged rivers are joined by distorted, threatening monsters; Garland indulges in both extended takes of his forest landscape and gory body-horror, blending the two with a distinctly surreal edge created with cinematographer Rob Hardy. Most striking of all, however, is that we have the time to appreciate it: with the blockbuster market inundated with bloated and breathless films, Garland’s consistent pacing is a refreshing change, guiding us easily from one scene to the next without rushed explanation or obvious filler. For the first two acts at least, Annihilation is rock-solid in its structure in a way that much idea-driven science-fiction isn’t – see the baggy first acts of Blade Runner 2049 and Interstellar, for example.
The final act is where it becomes difficult. Here at the OxStu we’ve already covered the issues surrounding the production of Annihilation; in short, the ending drove a wedge between Paramount and Garland, the latter refusing to change it and the former responding by giving it a Netflix-only release in foreign territories, including in the UK, to cut the losses they expected it to make. It is here that Garland allows the film to slip into abstraction, with little dialogue – let alone explanation – for the striking visuals on screen. It is guaranteed to be divisive and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it here, but suffice to say, in my opinion it was wise of Garland to stick to his guns: while it’s a little dissatisfying, apparently providing few real answers to the film’s quandaries and relating little to its overarching themes, it is exactly the kind of bizarre and enigmatic ending Annihilation deserves, and anything more coherent would have been a cop-out.
Annihilation is not perfect. It is almost entirely humourless, and its special effects are constrained by its budget, which in turn constrains its world-building. The film’s lean pacing works to its advantage, but the Shimmer is too interesting an idea to be limited to the 90 minutes or so of screen time it is given, especially given the two more books VanderMeer wrote about it that now almost certainly aren’t going to be adapted for screen. This is not Garland’s fault, or the fault of any of the cast and crew, but the result of trying to create something unconventional and challenging in an industry primarily concerned with mitigating risk and maximising profit. Maybe one day Hollywood studios will be brave enough to fully support science-fiction such as this – it’s important also to note that this is the rare science-fiction movie to pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours – but until then, we should enjoy Annihilation for the strange anomaly it is.
Available now on Netflix.