By Jack Dignan
Have you ever had a nightmare you know is a nightmare? It’s one that, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t wake up from. Perhaps it’s reoccurring, perhaps it’s a one off, but the terror you felt in that moment can’t be replaced. There’s no stopping it. It’s relentless. And yet it’s entirely unforgettable. That is, in a nutshell, Annihilation. It’s a fever dream gone wrong; nightmarishly depicting a world we fear the most, making this adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s beloved book a bold and daring follow up to Alex Garland’s brilliant directorial debut Ex Machina.
We follow the story of a biologist named Lena (Natalie Portman), who’s spent the last year mourning the mysterious disappearance of her solider husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who vanished along with his team in a classified mission she knows nothing about. Or at least she didn’t until, out of the blue, Kane shows back up at her doorstep. His arrival leads Lena down a dark path, and she finds herself taken in by the organisation he works for, led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). It’s here Lena learns of a mysterious sealed off area of unknown origins known as ‘The Shimmer,’ of which her husband is the only known survivor. Lena, Ventress and a team of scientists embark on an expedition inside, desperate to seek the truth of this potentially dangerous environment.
This is allegorical sci-fi at its finest, with vibes and visual parallels to an abundant of trippy, psychedelic classics of the past, including the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 classic Solaris and one of my all-time favourite films 2001: A Space Odyssey. ‘The Shimmer’ is a place of pure nightmare, yet it’s etched with beauty at every turn. Annihilation’s colour pallet feels like a dreamscape. Rainbows shine throughout almost every frame, surrounded by flickering colours and expert lighting that all help build this sense of other worldly surrealism present throughout.
It’s a film heavy in its ideas but also effective in execution, constantly creating this lingering sense of intrigue and terror. I certainly have my interpretation of what went down, but whether or not that theory is shared with others remains to be seen. Garland’s script is wildly ambitious in every sense of the word. It’s a conversation starter with multiple interpretations and no definite answers. He brings up the questions; we provide the answers. The third act takes this story to another level entirely, and that’s when its ever-present themes are fully realised and my admiration for the film grew even stronger. The final scene is one people are no doubt going to be talking about for years.
While the book is but the first part of a trilogy, the film feels complete. Garland has stated he wrote the adaptation without referring back to the source material, instead vowing to make it feel like a dreamy interpretation than a straightforward adaptation, and this decision is beyond effective. I’ve never read the book, but Garland’s film feels like its own thing. It doesn’t seem to provide you with all the answers, but repeat viewings will begin to unravel further secrets hidden, growing and evolving beneath the surface. My reaction was akin to that of Blade Runner 2049. Absolutely loved it on first viewing, yet I knew I’d need more time to let it soak in before I’d come to fully appreciate it.
But as good as this screenplay is, it’s the whole craft that comes together to create something powerful, hypnotic, haunting and gorgeous. Rob Hardy’s cinematography mixes paralysing, psychedelic shots with visuals that will shake you to your core. A sequence with a bear is utterly unnerving, perfected by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s ever present score that takes on a whole new level of brilliance in the third act. Natalie Portman is sensational as Lena, matched by a strong, empowered female cast including Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and the aforementioned Jennifer Jason Leigh. They don’t always get fleshed out, but their necessity derives from the overall themes, and their presence is effective.
A lot of the dialogue explaining their backstory can feel a little heavy handed and forgettable, and there’s one scene with Rodriguez’s character that felt strangely out of place before it evolved into one of the best and most terrifying sequences, but this is a film so brilliant and thought provoking that I can almost overlook any minor quibbles. These are the types of films I live for. We need more films like Annihilation. This film wasn’t deemed worthy of a theatrical release worldwide, instead handed off to Netflix for international distribution. Please, let’s prove studios wrong. These films work, and they need your support. Watch it. Tell your friends to watch it. Get it seen by as many people as possible. It may not be for everyone, but it’s worth finding out.
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