A different kind of measured, mainstream sci-fi that is almost like its thematic preoccupation—that of mutability where there is just enough change to enthrall and thrills to excite.
Dir. Alex Garland
2018 | UK/USA | Drama/Mystery/Sci-Fi | 115 mins | 2.39:1 | English
M18 (passed clean) for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Oscar Issac
Plot: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition into a mysterious zone where the laws of nature don’t apply.
Subject Matter: Thought-Provoking
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed on Netflix)
When it was announced earlier in 2018 that Alex Garland’s follow-up to Ex Machina (2014) will be distributed through Netflix rather than in the theatres, most fans of Garland or sci-fi surely raised their eyebrows in unison, and some might have uttered a curse word or two. Annihilation is a film that definitely needs to be seen on the big screen because of its immersive aural-visual quality. Like Roma (2018), it is not so much about the narrative per se (plot-driven films and series tend to work better on something like Netflix), but the sensorial experience of that narrative.
But I’m not complaining. Plugged into a good screen and sound system at home, that sensorial experience can be recreated, not so much in terms of pure fidelity as nothing comes close to being in a proper theatre, but within one’s compromised if satisfactory viewing ‘standard’.
Headed by Natalie Portman who plays Lena, a biologist who asks to tag along in an expedition to a slowly expanding zone that has been mysteriously occupied by some kind of alien life. We aren’t sure if it is a lifeform or a lifeforce, neither do the team. They venture into the space where the laws of nature don’t quite apply, and with the knowledge that those who went in did not make it out.
“It’s not destroying. It’s making something new.”
Annihilation is a different kind of mainstream sci-fi, more measured in approach, and certainly more intelligent. It balances the wonder of discovery with the threat of death. It is both beautiful and suspenseful—there’s genuine tension and in one sequence involving a bear-like creature, Garland does a Spielberg with aplomb. The film can be violent and gory, but its tranquil treatment of themes of mutability, nature and existence help neuter some of its more visceral moments.
Structurally, Annihilation is also interesting in its non-chronological storytelling style. It is bold enough to tell us the fates of the characters early on, yet generating enough intrigue to make us go along for the trek. Notice I didn’t use the term ‘ride’ because it is not a rollercoaster-type movie, but it asks that you approach it like a walk through a foreign land, to be on your toes but also to take in new scenes and new ideas.
There are bizarre, head-scratching moments in the climax, but ultimately Annihilation shows that Garland understands the artistic lure of science-fiction filmmaking, and he is certainly no one-trick pony.