“Annihilation” is writer/director Alex Garland’s follow-up to 2015’s fascinating, visionary Oscar-winning drama “Ex Machina”. This time he adapts Book One of the popular sci-fi Southern Reach Trilogy, creating the most riveting and thought-provoking film of the year so far.
Natalie Portman is excellent as Lena, a biologist and Johns Hopkins professor who specializes in cell reproduction. Prior to her medical career she served in the Army for seven years, which is where she met husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). Kane remained in the military, but with him missing in action for over a year, Lena presumes he’s dead. She can’t get any information from the U.S. Government to tell her otherwise.
But it’s best not to presume anything when it comes to “Annihilation” (that goes for the characters and the audience). After a shocking discovery, Lena finds herself on a mission with a group of four other female scientists to investigate “the Shimmer” – a giant, rainbow-colored, holographic bubble that has mysteriously descended around a lighthouse on the U.S. coast. Authorities have been able to keep the phenomenon (named ‘Area X’) a secret for three years, but it’s growing and affecting everything in its path in a very strange way. This includes all previous human expeditions into “the Shimmer”, which have not gone well.
“Annihilation” breeds tension – from an opening scene meteor strike to the final, somewhat creepy shot. This film shares elements of story and tone with numerous members of the sci-fi/horror/alien genre, including two in particular (an all-time classic, and a recent Oscar winner). The only hint I’ll give is that they all have the same first letter in their one word titles. But Garland’s entry is more than capable of standing on its own, due to a scintillating amount of depth, blended with moments of shock and awe.
While the narrative goes in some “out there” directions, the concepts are presented so believably and handled so intelligently by the characters that we have no problem going along for the ride. In fact, several scenes in “Annihilation” are so real (and shocking) they’ll be impossible to forget. Overall, the visuals are stunning (cinematographer Rob Hardy shot “Ex Machina”, as well as the upcoming “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”) – capturing the beauty of this strange new world and the creepy violence that it produces. The very alive soundtrack enhances both.
Portman is a quite convincing as a kick-ass action star. She keeps you locked-in, with a strenuous, effective performance. Lena’s confusion, frustration, pain and determination are palpable. Jennifer Jason Leigh is perfectly cast as a quirky psychologist. Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson are also part of the mission. They all have their own reasons for wanting to solve the mystery of “the Shimmer”.
Here’s my advice: See “Annihilation” without reading or hearing anything else about it. Just expect something rather… unique, and sit back and let it consume you.