This review is SPOILER FREE
When the credits started rolling after my viewing of Alex Garland’s follow-up to his incredible directorial debut, Ex Machina, I was left with the same question I had after my first viewing of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive: “What just happened”?
The film tells the story of Lena (Natalie Portman), an ex-soldier turned cellular biology professor who volunteers for a dangerous expedition to enter “The Shimmer”, a mysterious quarantined zone where the laws of nature do not apply.
The film was released straight to Netflix in most territories around the world, something which Garland has been most critical of. Annihilation is something that deserves to be seen on the big screen. However, it is completely understandable that Paramount chose to sell the distribution rights to Netflix as the film is not something that will attract casual audiences into the cinema. Unfortunately, this film will not get a positive reaction from the majority of casual audiences if they watched the trailer prior to seeing the film. Annihilation is another victim of misleading marketing, in which it is portrayed as a monster film filled with action scenes. This is an outright lie and something which is happening too often. This film is not an action film but a slowly paced character piece which heavily focuses on the theme of evolution. It’s no wonder Paramount had no faith in the film succeeding at the box office when films like Fast and Furious are crossing the billion-dollar mark with ease. Annihilation is simply too smart for most audiences.
First things first, Annihilation is visually stunning. Garland teams up with his Ex Machina cinematographer Rob Hardy, who is given more opportunities to create a visual spectacle than he was in the rather claustrophobic setting of Ex Machina, although the film does have a visual similarity to their previous partnership. The setting of “The Shimmer” feels vibrant and in many ways reminded me of Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar. It is such a shame that the majority of the world, including myself, are unable to experience the film on the big screen.
Garland has proven himself an exceptional screenwriter with his name attached to audience and critical favourites 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Dredd. As you’d expect with an Alex Garland script, especially if you’ve seen Ex Machina, Annihilation’s script is well crafted and thought-provoking. He challenges the audience to question the very nature of existence. Every single piece of the dialogue feels natural and unforced. That being said, Garland chooses to tell the story in the form of a non-linear narrative, with the opening scene taking place after the expedition, frequently jumping between flashbacks and the present. Although this form of storytelling has worked in the past, most notably with films like Memento and the aforementioned Mulholland Drive it doesn’t work with Annihilation. It removes any tension that could have been present during the main events of the film. Additionally, there is a rather unnecessary subplot involving an affair which serves very little more than showing the audience how the characters are flawed. It’s quite ironic as the script whilst brilliant shares a similarity with the characters, it too is flawed.
The film has an impressive cast with Academy Award nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh being a real standout. Leigh shines as Ventress, the leader of the expedition and successfully crafts a character that the audience is left fascinated by. Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances of her career. She is equally believable as an incredibly smart biologist as she is a badass yet flawed ex-soldier. The cast is rounded out with Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny and Ex Machina alum, Oscar Isaac. Everyone gets their moment to impress, with Gina Rodriguez delivering a surprisingly intense performance as Anya, who on several occasions, reminded me of Jenette Goldstein’s Vasquez from Aliens. There is even a moment where Anya picks up a huge gun that looks very similar to Vasquez’s ‘Smartgun’. As for Oscar Isaac, his screen time is limited, however, whenever he is on-screen, he is as captivating as you have come to expect from him.
Following on with the visuals of the film, the CGI is for the most part excellent. The third act, in particular, is simply jaw-dropping. However, there are a few instances where it is clear that the film’s $55 million budget has impacted the quality of certain creatures. It makes me wonder just what the film could have been visually if it had a bigger budget. Garland’s vision has clearly been too bold for the budget available to him, however, the work of the visual effects team considering they were restrained by a rather modest budget, is simply outstanding.
Garland also reunites with Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, the composers of Ex Machina, who manage to create a score which is both eerily surreal and strikingly beautiful. The use of acoustic guitar took me by surprise as it is not something you expect to see in a film of this nature, which is why it is perfect as Annihilation subverts expectations.
One of the reasons why I loved Ex Machina so much, was that it told stories and brought attention to themes and philosophies that have been focused on for decades in film, yet did it in such a unique and interesting way. The same can also be said for Annihilation. Whilst Ex Machina focused on what constitutes humanity, Annihilation focuses on the concept of evolution. Evolution is a concept that has been the focal point of many iconic films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both films tackle evolution through the use of an inhuman entity, however, their methods of doing so are vastly different. Another aspect of humanity that Annihilation focuses on is the fear of the unknown. Garland writes characters that represent the various different reactions that people experience when faced with life or death situations, something which the audience will begin to question about themselves whilst watching the film. It is because of this that the characters are interesting and not ones that the audience will forget about immediately.
One thing that really surprised me about Annihilation was how brutal and in one instance, graphically violent the film is. This is something which, depending on how individual audience members feel about violence in film, will either benefit or harm the overall reception to the film. For me, it was shocking, not because I did not approve, but because it was so different tonally compared to what I had seen in the film up until that point.
As for the ending, I, of course, won’t spoil it, but it will undoubtedly leave many frustrated as Garland chooses to leave plenty of mystery at the end of the film. Much like Ex Machina, there is a great sense of ambiguity in Annihilation that begs for repeat viewings. This is a film which will surely go on to be a cult favourite and will no doubt be studied and analysed for decades to come.
Annihilation is a great follow-up for Alex Garland that continues his debut’s quest to make the audience think and question their very nature of existence. Similarly to films like Blade Runner, my opinion on Annihilation could be completely different after multiple viewings. However, based on my first viewing, although not as spectacular as Ex Machina, Annihilation without a doubt, is deserving of your attention.