Review by Owen Herman
Where to begin? Alex Garland’s second feature, based on the novel of the same name, is so unnerving, so thought-provoking, and so breath-taking that it really takes some time to wrap your head around.
With his first feature Garland brought us Ex Machina, a tightly wound sci-fi thriller that left me reeling with unanswered questions and a sense of uneasiness which was hard to shake. Annihilation is the next level. It could be easily descried as either pure sci-fi or pure horror, and it brings the best of both genres. Its story should be left to be discovered for yourself, but the premise is best described as Lena’s (Natalie Portman) journey into an unknown world that has been created by the arrival of “The Shimmer”, a beautiful and dangerous wave of light that is engulfing a small part of America, in order to find answers relating to her husband’s (Oscar Isaac) current condition.
The film is absolutely stunning to look at, its well lit and colourful world is one of utter beauty. The Sun cascades down through the trees, highlighting the ethereal Shimmer. However, this world is also very dangerous. Right from the off tension is built out of the uncertainty experienced by both the characters and the viewer. Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score unnerves and hints at the darkness hidden behind the beauty. The film’s strongest asset is its mystery and unpredictability, but unfortunately some of this is lost due to its non-linear structure. There is still much that is unexpected, but certain mysteries are spoiled by characters discussing events before we have seen them.
The ideas behind this film are bold. They aren’t easy or nicely presented, and there are no right answers. However, the familiar structure and a couple of bog-standard action scenes keep it from really flourishing. This could have been 2001 for the Netflix generation, a unique film that wants to shake you with its smart ideas, but familiar tropes shackle it and stop it reaching its full potential.
Natalie Portman is terrific, as are her team of all female scientists, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson (the BAFTA Rising Star nominee really is one to watch out for), and Tuva Novotny. This is a group of complex and damaged people, each with their own reasons for venturing on the dangerous mission. The films most out-there moments are anchored by this group of engaging characters, allowing us to connect with them and the strange situation they find themselves in.
The female majority cast raises another point about Annihilation, it is another step in the right direction. It is an original genre movie, filled with brave and unique ideas, and a diverse cast that offers something different to what we are used to. Annihilation is not perfect, but it is the exact kind of film that we need to support.