Life, in Alex Garland’s Annihilation, his follow up to Ex Machina, is a ponderous, methodical, and unbalanced matter. Natalie Portman’s Lena, vacant and distant, states that the mystical “shimmer” isn’t destroying, but “creating something new”. The feverish world Garland has created inside this bubble where a nuclear wasteland gives birth to spooling green forests is one that envisions impossible horrors and even more spectacular visions of beauty. It’s tremendously frightening, dizzyingly beautiful and excruciatingly unsettling as we watch, breath caught between disbelief and panicked laughter, as this world so meticulously built, disassembles itself. The film, too, is creating something new.
Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, there’s an impossibility to the adaptation. Cerebral, internal and moody, it didn’t scream “big screen adaptation”. What Alex Garland has done so acutely is creating an adaptation of Annihilation specifically to cinematic form. It isn’t trying to capture every essence of the book, or tell it exactly as written. Rather, he captures the atmosphere and it’s one drowning in a fog of dread.
Following a group of scientists as they enter an environmental disaster zone after the only soldier to ever return (Oscar Isaac) falls ill, the group looks to gather knowledge on the mysterious nature of the environment, its conception and just what happens to those who never returned from the past expeditions.
Lead by Natalie Portman’s Lena, the entire (mostly female) cast is a mix of seasoned, or rising talents. Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez instill three dimensional life to periphery characters, while Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh play calculated and closed off leaders expertly. They both have goals and desires for this expedition, and neither are willing to be forthcoming with what those are.
Astonishing work is at play here, and it is refreshing to see five women spearheading the story. As frightening as anything you’ll see this year and equally wondrous and insightful, Annihilation is a testament for intelligent science fiction.
Garland, having made a spectacular splash with Ex Machina about the destructive and narcissistic nature of man, has followed it up with a similar touch. Refined and steely, Annihilation is another mediation on how humans were always meant to self-destruct – it’s our biology. A study on the egos of men that lead to seeking answers for inexplicable aspects of life and the universe, the film thrives in its ambiguity. It refutes easy answers – for us or its characters. We’re forced to watch as nature overtakes, rebuilds and molds, reckoning with how little the Earth we inhabit cares for us. We destroy and we take, but ultimately we’re at its mercy.
Garland’s direction alongside cinematographer Rob Hardy’s work crafts an eerie and distant picture. While the horrifying moments of violence translate as impossibly close, the disorienting plain they’ve found themselves on is vast and alien. Colors are electrifying and vibrant, most misplaced and slightly removed from reality, the coating of the shimmer itself garish, compared to the washed out tones of the scientists neutral garb and the swamp’s muted greens and browns. Moments of transcendent beauty include a silhouette, a grave made out of growth, a single, nuclear shot that transforms the world and a dazzling, mind bending crescendo that posits more ambiguities. Images are macabre and dripping with impossibility, yet tangible enough to become immersed in them. This world is foreign yet familiar, making the frightening elements all the more heightened.
The screenplay is superb in moments of silence, with only Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s intensive score keeping us company. When dialogue is required, it’s static, a crutch to tell a story that, by its very nature, is tough to comprehensively tell. In its silence though, a different world of meaning evolves. Thematic threads regarding the unlikely implausibility of humankind, our disastrous ability to self-sustain and nature’s general disregard for our wants and needs ring brightly, a bitter accent to a story already so fed up with ineptitude.
Etched into my eyelids are flashes of glowing, golden orbs, of faces that contort, ripe with fear. I hear the thrum of the score, the excruciating noises of a slow, violent death, and the fear that engulfs the characters. Viscerally intuitive in just what will set our hair on end and have us double and triple locking our doors to bar impossible creatures from gaining entry, Annihilation refuses to leave once it’s seeped its way into every fiber of you that’s alert and attentive while watching, rigid and tense. It follows you home.
Garland, with all of his imagination and ingenuity has created a perplexing film – one that’s rife with contradictions all so perfectly suitable with one another. The expository dialogue is heavy handed and didactic, sure, and the narrative framework is clearly a handout to the audience by a studio too concerned over their ability to work out a problem for their own.
Then there’s everything else.
From the score that mounts from a recognizable, melodic charge to something that’s significantly less human, to cold and measured performances, to visuals that harken back to Stalker and Stanley Kubrick, but are decidedly Garland’s- the film is masterfully composed. Annihilation is controlled chaos. Its poignancy, its impossible beauty and its humanism in moments of sheer desperation allow it to transcend a buttoned script. The story lies in the visuals, and they will take your breath away.