Annihilation - 2018
Director(s): Alex Garland
Writer(s): Alex Garland (screenplay) / Jeff VanderMeer (novel)
Cinematography by: Rob Hardy
Editor(s): Barney Pilling
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac and Benedict Wong.
Synopsis: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don't apply (IMDB).
Alex Garland made a name for himself as a writer, with movies like 28 Weeks Later, Sunshine and Dredd under his belt. He became a household name in the sci-fi community with his directorial debut with 2014’s Ex-Machina, which is one of my favorite movies of the year and one that currently sits in my Blu-Ray collection. He instantly became one of the few directors working today whose IMDB page I would check to see if a new project would appear under “pre-production”. As soon as Annihilation appeared it became one of my most anticipated movies of the year.
My expectations were dampened a bit when the news broke that Paramount lost faith in the commercial value overseas and sold it to Netflix outside of the United States, Canada and China. The same studio that backed a great sci-fi movie like 2016’s Arrival was slowly backing away from the table months prior to its release. After walking out of my screening, I don’t agree with this being a home viewing experience, since the big screen and the loud sound system added a lot to the visuals and the story. But, I understand why the studio thought people wouldn’t gravitate towards the movie. I can easily see people completely loving this movie and people completely hating this movie. I fell somewhere in the middle.
The story is pretty straightforward, despite it being labeled “too intellectual”. An unknown phenomenon starts occurring in an undisclosed location, that the government starts calling “the shimmer”. Multiple teams of scientist and soldiers go in and nobody comes out. Once we enter we see that the phenomena has altered the environment, especially all life forms. The government needs to understand the source of the shimmer since its growing and its threatening to change the entire world. The story goes from point A to point B in a pretty straight line and the ending leaves the audience with enough puzzle pieces to either enjoy it on a surface level or ponder on it for a while, digging deeper into the metaphor.
Quick note: the third act plays more like a straight sci-fi movie a la 2001: A Space Odessy, while the first two acts meld the sci-fi, horror and drama genres.
Where this movie absolutely shines is with the visuals. The shimmer looks like when there is a shimmer of light in petrol oil and water. What is commonly known as “dead rainbows”, since they lay on the ground. This gives the cinematography a unique look since the sunlight and the atmosphere has a synthetic look to it thanks to the rainbow affect. Along with the ambience, the environment also looks fantastical, almost like a grounded version of what Alice in Wonderland plants look like. Since the shimmer is changing everything around it, the animals also have gone through changes and they are great visual designs. There is a sequence in where a “bear” visits the team of scientist and its full of tension and creepy visuals. Probably my favorite scene of the movie.
Quick note: along with great visuals, the sound design was solid. It reminded me of one of my favorite sci-fi movies in recent years, Under the Skin. The third act resembled a lot of the visuals depicted in that movie as well.
The acting was great, with Natalie Portman as Lena being the stand out. She had a lot to shoulder in this movie in terms of emotions and she handled them all effortlessly. Oscar Isaac as Kayne was a bit uneven, but it pays off once you gain more information about the character. Something I liked about the story is that we learn the information with the characters, so as an audience we aren’t two steps ahead of the characters. Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny are good within their roles but nothing to write home about.
Sadly, the one character I didn’t connect with at all was the one portrayed by Jenifer Jason Leigh. I thought she was unnecessarily detached and a bit over the top. She plays a psychiatrist that for some reason is the leader of the scientific team that is sent inside the shimmer. Leigh also delivers a mini monologue towards the end of the movie that felt forced and a bit too heavy on the exposition. It was almost like Garland or the studio felt that the audience wouldn’t get it, even though it was pretty self-explanatory.
Annihilation is a good sci-fi movie with great horror elements, that tries to reach the heights of previous entries of the genre but falls a bit short. Solid acting, great direction, stellar visuals and sound design help the movie but not enough for me to run down the streets recommending it to everyone. It will ultimately be up to your taste. I would say watch it in a theater if you can, but I wouldn’t fault you if you waited for it to be released on Netflix. I’m still intrigued to see where Garland goes from here as it was still a good movie, just not great like I hope it would be. The bear scene is why I love movies.
Annihilation is currently playing in theaters. Let me know if you love it or hate it.
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