Director: Alex Garland.
Based on: Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer
Starring. Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac. USA. 1h 57m.
This newest visionary delight from Alex Garland, doesn’t fit into the typical science fiction category, with other Netflix releases like Bright (2017) and Cloverfield Paradox (2018), where the effects and story are both weak in the later and jarring this side step into the cerebral is exactly what a lot of dedicated science fiction fans have been craving for so very long now. Taking on a model similar to the legendary Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) or Solaris (1971), Annihilation plunges it’s audience into a lavish and dangerous new world to explore along with a scattering of emotive flashbacks added purely for good measure.
The film starts with a meteor hitting a lighthouse but the introduction is of a woman, Lena (Portman) pining away for her military husband Kane (Isaacs) while carrying on her job as a highly successful biologist, her colleagues try to convince her that after a year it’s time to move on, but she’s going to stay home and paint the bedroom, this just happens to be the very same day when her missing husband walks in, they embrace, talk to the verge of an argument when he starts to bleed and convulse, on the way to the hospital, the police escort them to a secret location. Lena finds herself a place called the Southern Reach, a research facility a few miles from that lighthouse in the opening shot, here, she’s treated like a biohazard while her husband is in critical condition.
Dr. Ventress (Leigh) informs her that they are based only miles from an event commonly known to the personnel as ‘The Shimmer,’ and that after years of research, no radio signals have returned from the site and no manned missions have produced a survivor until her husband. Under the assumption that either something kills them or the people inside go crazy and kill each other Dr. Ventress and three other tough (and slightly damaged) women Anya (Rodriguez), shy Josie (Thompson), and sweet Cass (Novotny) are going into the Shimmer, Lena insists on going with them, but the others are unaware of her connection with Kane.
A lot seems to have happened, a government psychologist has opened up to Lena that there is an evacuated area on planet earth that is spreading and growing and it’s contents are unknown, but this is the opening for the film and the fun is about to begin. On entering the Shimmer, Annihilation takes on a whole new look and feel, instantly the girls lose 3 days they wake up with no memory of setting up tents and eating, but they pack up and head into a lush Eden that looks familiar but is incredibly dangerous and strange.. Garland reveals just enough at every point to give us interest and confusion about the situation, then back to a flashback of the past, this disorientation just about works as the performances are so brilliant when we return to the Shimmer.
The Shimmer is very much a lavish version of Road Side Picnic’s “Zones” within these alien areas we have little idea of what to expect and cinematographer Rob Hardy (who also worked on Ex Machina()) works to use the natural world while transforming it into something we can’t fathom anymore. The relationship between the women is quite engaging, they range from the quiet and sensitive type to a mini Vasques from Aliens (1986) and when the going gets tough she comes out all guns blazing, but as progress is made they all start to show signs of cracking. Somehow Garland manages to bring a distinct level of fear and action into this science fiction epic, at these points the film could have become very “comical” but in the Shimmer is seems as if matter is bring broken down and re-created, from my limited A level understanding of science, each cell has the potential to be anything, so as a caterpillar breaks down into a soup and becomes a butterfly, in the Shimmer things break down to become new things, one plant will have different species of flower emerging from it, people become trees, their veins stems and arteries branches, and you really don’t want to know what happened to the larger critters near the top of the food chain…
The flash backs and the flash backs within them become a little annoying, especially when the women are making more disturbing and beautiful discoveries, stepping back to “normality” became a bit of a bore as it didn’t really enhance the movie’s plot in anyway. As is often with this adventure movies, the journey is more exciting than the finale, not that it’s dull, but it’s so profound I think it has the ability to fly over a few head, but we “get” the message but personally I felt that the psychedelic cgi was too heavy and lowered the brilliant tone and pace of the film up until this point.
It’s a difficult movie to discuss, as it has so many elements which people warm to on a personal level, taking away a private version of what they have witnessed and that’s very much what the film is about, a collective of differences, which in time all become the same, it’s beautiful in many ways, even the scene with the talking bear, there’s still a point in which the newness of all the creation going on in the Shimmer is somehow dark and sublime. More details in the Post Discussion and certainly more after the books have been read.