Annihilation is a compelling and complex sci-fi thriller with big, horrifying monsters and bigger lingering questions.
Writer-director Alex Garland is certainly carving out a niche for himself, with
Domhnall Gleeson did it first in Ex-Machina, Garland’s official debut as a director. (He had previously written 28 Days Later and is rumoured to have really helmed Dredd too.) Now, multiple characters are given the dicey privilege in his latest effort, Annihilation, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer.
Garland keeps breaking a record no one is asking him to break, setting new bars for existential and intestinal investigations. Maybe in his next
The scene in which Gleeson sliced open his arm to check for any robotic wiring was when many probably opted-out of Ex-Machina, which, to that point, had been a quiet, albeit intense sci-fi chamber piece; the sudden surprise of bloody self-surgery heralded a stunning third act. (It’s a very good, tightly-written flick that also comes with a choregraphed Oscar Isaac disco routine. Recommended. Would watch again.)
But gore isn’t the biggest barrier to completing Annihilation (which arrived this week on Australian Netflix, following an exclusive run in U.S. cinemas). This challenging and, let’s say it, totally bonkers thriller has plenty of other obstacles for unsuspecting punters, including an otherworldly and astral fight/dance routine, and some mutated monsters that are spiritually crushing, like the boar that has absorbed the cries of its last human victim, which ring out whenever it opens it maw.
In many ways, Annihilation’s extreme violence is the most conventional Hollywood ‘thing’ about it. Everything else is what makes it so special, and fascinating enough to stomach.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a former soldier and current biologist in mourning. Her black-ops husband Kane (Isaac) has been MIA for more than a year, and she’s stuck with the guilt of her actions that may have played a part in him leaving for a covert assignment with seemingly no end. Then, out of the blue, Kane walks through the door. Except, different.
Before she can get any answers, he starts choking up blood, and she’s swept away by special forces to ‘Area X’. There, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) explains where Kane’s been: voyaging into parkland that has been swallowed by a glowing orb referred to as ‘the Shimmer’. The orb is growing bigger and changing the molecular structure of everything—and everyone—inside, and after years of reconnaissance missions, Kane’s the only one to walk out alive. So, Lena volunteers for the next trip in, to solve the mystery of his illness, riding along with Ventress, paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson) and geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny).
Obviously, they don’t stay a quintet for long.
‘A ragtag troop of soldiers and civilians go into a warzone’ is hardly a fresh idea, having been recycled in everything from Rambo to Aliens. Garland even echoes H.R. Giger’s skeletal xenomorphs in the beasties and bone-encrusted environments Lena and company meet throughout their nightmarish journey. However, this is more than simply homage. The refracting lights within ‘the Shimmer’ make Annihilation appear as if it was filmed through an ‘aurora borealis’ filter, and the cornucopias of metamorphosed flora that decorate the surroundings (and sometimes, the travellers) give the feature an uncommonly beautiful sheen for its type. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score adds a discordant, alien element, especially in the climactic encounter, in a psychedelic sequence that can only be described as Under the Skin meets modern dance as a metaphor for self-sabotage. It’s remarkable.
Portman and her co-stars are grounded anchors in an extraordinary situation, as women whose self-destructive habits mirror those of our own bodies and our ecosystem. This metaphor makes the ending of Annihilation a tough pill to swallow, yet a necessary one. But getting into the nitty gritty of ‘what it’s (maybe) all about’ requires spoilers, and lots of them, and it would be criminal to dump them in a review intended to entice you into watching the thing (warnings of invasive bodily explorations aside). Therefore, in case it hasn’t been made abundantly clear: Annihilation is very exciting and thoughtful, and you can (and should) watch it right now.
Amateur critic and astrophysistic Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently tweeted, “Creativity that satisfies & affirms your world view is Entertainment. Creativity that challenges & disrupts your world view is Art.” I don’t know if he was inspired to spout this after watching Annihilation, though we know he goes to the movies a bunch, almost specifically to explain them away until they’re not remotely fun anymore. His declaration makes fleeting sense, if you don’t look at it too closely, but it is, of course, wrong. Entertainment and Art often does cross over. In the case of Annihilation, which satisfies, challenges, disrupts and affirms, I’m compelled to ask Tyson: “Why don’t we have both?”
Annihilation is now streaming on Netflix in Australia. Rated MA15+ for strong violence, strong blood and gore, strong horror themes.