Written by Aaron Radcliff:
I think it’s time we start to take Alex Garland a little more serious. If you’ve followed his career, then you’d know he’s quite the writer when it comes to science-fiction/horror, but it wasn’t until 2015’s Ex Machina that he finally stepped into the director’s chair. Now he’s back with Annihilation.
The film (which is based on the best-selling novel by Jeff VanderMeer) tells the story of an all-female exploration group sent into an alien-like area known as the Shimmer. Since its inception, the Shimmer has continued to expand and all prior exploration groups failed to return. But when one man, Kane (Oscar Isaac) mysteriously returns, his wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), ventures her way into the unknown to find out what created it and what happened to her husband inside the ever-expanding mass.
I have to admit that I haven’t read the book, so maybe the thick whale blubber-like blanket of Lovecraft is also present on the page, but it’s everywhere on screen. From the opening scene to the end, the whole film feels like this thoughtful, depressing journey of cosmic realization; contrasting its dour heart against a beautiful backdrop, and it truly is beautiful.
As is par for the course with films Garland helped pen, he knows how to dial up the tension without letting it overflow. He deprives us just enough to get antsy and then ratchets up the intrigue or dread until it’s nearly boiling before gracing us with the horror we’ve anticipated. From a purely sci-fi/horror perspective, Annihilation knocks it out of the park.
What will turn people off, though, is the explanation…or lack thereof…of things going on. While I like that in this case, not everyone will find that satisfactory. Why is this happening? What is that? What does it mean? All are valid questions raised which may or may not be answered by the time the credits roll, depending on how you view the story. But to me, I think that’s what was needed. Nobody in this story really knows what’s going on, so neither should we. They’re confronted with things they don’t understand and may never will. That adds so much to the anxiety and intrigue of everything happening.
Another thing that might turn people off is the sort of Nolan-esque storytelling which feels more like a burn rather than deliberately slow pace.
But whether that was intentional or not, it allows us to see more of the strikingly beautiful landscapes within the Shimmer. It becomes more puzzling yet comforting to the point that you almost forget that there are unseen horrors throughout and essentially everything inside is trying to kill you.
I don’t want to call this a “thinking movie” because I didn’t find myself questioning life or the decisions people make, despite those questions being raised. Maybe if they were handled better or given a bit more fleshing out, then maybe they’d be worth more of my query. However, the questions raised by simply trying to figure out what the hell is going is enough to keep you interested. I found myself questioning and theorizing and double-guessing so many times throughout which helped keep such a fantastical premise grounded.
For those who have read the book, they’ll know that it was in fact a trilogy. Whether or not they choose to keep it this way or go whole-hog remains to be seen. I could take it either way. There’s certainly enough story and unanswered questions to merit at least another film, but we’re also given enough here to form our own assumptions and leave things as they are. The ultimate deciding factor is if audiences are ok with that. There’s more than enough tension, foreboding, and questions to keep you engaged and interested. The question is if you’re ok with being given so few answers and forced into the occasional mind melt. If so, then Annihilation could easily be considered a modern sci-fi work of absolute art. If not, then it’s still worth checking out simply for the visuals and nail-biting tension.
Score: 8 out of 10
Image via Paramount Pictures