I still remember sitting in my local arthouse theater three years ago, eagerly awaiting a film that I initially had zero interest in, but was convinced by my fellow cinephile friends to check out regardless. What followed was nearly two hours of being in complete and absolute awe at what I was watching onscreen. The cast was tremendous, completely losing themselves in their respective roles. The cinematography was almost dreamlike, giving way to visuals that were futuristic, yet still somehow modern. The story itself was ballsy; the ending had me talking for weeks. The film? EX MACHINA, featuring the directorial debut of Alex Garland, and the film that first introduced me to the talent of (future Oscar winner) Alicia Vikander. It was also at that moment that Garland earned enough “equity” with me that I vowed to see his next film on opening weekend, whenever that day would come. Three years later, Garland has graced us with his latest directorial effort – ANNIHILATION.
Based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, the story follows Lena (played by Natalie Portman), a biologist and former Army soldier, now working as a biology professor at Johns Hopkins University. Her husband and fellow solider Kane (played by Oscar Issac) left on what can only be inferred at this point as a “secret Army mission” over a year ago, and hasn’t been seen since. Presumed dead, Lena attempts to move on with her life until, one day, Kane randomly shows up at their home. After some grilling by Lena, Kane provides no answers as to his whereabouts, or a clue of how he even made home. Suddenly, Kane starts convulsing and hemorrhaging from his mouth, and is immediately taken away in an ambulance. But before they can get to the hospital, the ambulance is ambushed by government vehicles, and Lena and Kane are taken captive by a government entity known as the Southern Reach.
Waking up at their compound, Lena is questioned by Dr. Ventress (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) as to the circumstances surrounding Kane’s mission and sudden reappearance. Lena learns that Kane is the only survivor of the latest expedition into “Area X,” an area of land within a national park that was somehow transformed after a mysterious object struck a lighthouse in the area, engulfing it in a forcefield-like shroud which has been called the Shimmer. Upon learning that Kane is dying, Lena decides to join Ventress’ latest data-gathering expedition into the Shimmer, feeling that she owes it to Kane to find some answers. Joined by a physicist, Josie (played by Tessa Thompson), an anthropologist, Cass (played by Tuva Novotny), and a paramedic, Anya (played by Gina Rodriguez), Lena and Ventress head into the Shimmer, not knowing what to expect on the other side.
The first thing I noticed while watching ANNIHILATION – and the one thing that every review, whether positive or negative, will tout – is how gorgeous this film looks. This was also the first thing I noticed about EX MACHINA as well, to the point where I knew that the cinematographer had to be same – and it was! Rob Hardy, in his second collaboration with Alex Garland, absolutely nails the dreamlike state of Area X and the Shimmer that Garland was aiming for, giving us a simultaneously dazzling and, often times, haunting playground for our characters to get lost within. The cinematography, combined with the stunning visual effects, help underscore the “haunting” aspect incredibly well, immersing the audience into this world where darkness, mystery, and death could hide at every turn. This is where Garland’s strong screenplay comes into the equation.
In a similar way that Garland questions the essence of humanity itself with EX MACHINA, he asks the same questions of his audience with ANNIHILATION. There is a particular scene within the film where Lena points out to Kane that the reason humans grow old is due to a defect in our genes; on that same note, she reveals her belief that the self-destructive nature of humanity is due to a defect within humanity itself. In other words, we are the cause of our own demise, whether naturally (growing old/disease) or unnaturally (violence). The Shimmer itself seems to represent rebirth, a clean slate – as revealed in the film’s trailer, Ventress exclaims that the Shimmer is destroying the landscape, but Lena counters that it’s not destroying it, it’s “making something new.” At the end of it all, the film seems to ask – should humanity continue to live with its inherent flaws, or should the universe give way to improvement, something new? I don’t know the answer to that, but I feel that repeat viewings of ANNIHILATION lend itself to better interpretations of what the film feels is the answer. The ending will more than likely divide audiences and critics alike, but all that does is create more conversation. And that, in a nutshell, is the brilliance of Garland’s screenplay – everyone has their own theories, and there really is no wrong answer. But with each new theory, Garland accomplishes his goal: to get you, the viewer, to question everything.
Natalie Portman gives another strong, yet subdued performance as Lena. The great thing about her character is that she’s inherently not a John Rambo-type of solider, but can easily turn into that when she has to, and Portman does a tremendous job of walking that line within Lena. Jennifer Jason Leigh also turns in a great effort as Dr. Ventress, someone whose natural essence just gives off a feeling that she’s actually hiding a lot more than she’s trying to seek with the Shimmer. Supported by great performances from Tessa Thompson (who I absolutely loved in THOR: RAGNAROK), Tuva Novotny, Gina Rodriguez, and David Gyasi (in a small role), ANNIHILATION delivers terrific efforts on the acting front.
My one real criticism of the film comes from its uneven pacing, particularly around the midway point. From observing the people around me as well as my own personal experience, I feel that this is where the film starts to lose the audience. I have talked to people who have also told me that this was the point where they would start to feel “bored.” I think the film took a little too long at this point to set up its next plot point, and would’ve taken out the scissors to make the transition a little more fluid and engaging to the viewer.
Having said that, I highly recommend ANNIHILATION, but with a caveat – this is a film that will challenge you. This is a film that doesn’t have all the answers. Not all loose ends will be tied up by the time the credits start to roll; in fact, the ending will probably unraveled any ends that viewers considered to be “tied.” And that’s okay – because this is how Garland wanted to tell his story. If films like this are not your cup of tea, I would suggest either waiting for it to hit streaming or just skipping it altogether. But even if one were not privy to enjoy films like ANNIHILATION, I still encourage people to take the plunge anyway; not only is the story ripe for dissecting and your next water-cooler conversation, but the acting is great, and the visuals become more stunning with every passing frame. For those looking for their next cinematic challenge – I think you will meet your match with ANNIHILATION.
2018 • 115 Minutes • United States
Color • English • Paramount Pictures
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Issac