If Netflix missed the mark when cashing in on the colossally disappointing The Cloverfield Paradox, they’ve certainly made it up to their UK audiences with Annihilation. The next film in the growing repertoire of Alex Garland is clearly his most ambitious work to date, even more so than his directorial debut Ex Machina, a film that has matured finely since, harvesting ideas on artificial intelligence that are still as relevant as ever.
In light of the current post-Weinstein climate in Hollywood, Annihilation boasts a predominantly female cast in an often phallocentric genre. It’s undeniably refreshing to see a director diversify sci-fi, rather than playing it safe with a heroic front-man leading the way. Annihilation, however, isn’t like most films of its genre. Its polarising pre-release screenings lead Paramount to panic and offload the film rather than risk a box-office bomb, instead allowing Garland to truly depict his visionary adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel.
Central to the narrative is Lena (Natalie Portman), who is at the heart of a mission into an obscure but vastly expanding area known as ‘The Shimmer’, following the return of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), the only human to ever return from this dangerous expedition. To know anything else about the plot would be detrimental to the effect of such a film, which challenges the audience from the offset.
Garland weaves in and out of a non-linear narrative, telling the story through flashbacks which at times tread dangerously close to exposition. However, the film is directed with such an intelligent, yet inviting sensibility that it’s at times impossible to pin down, as its narrative complexities will undoubtedly leave many eagle-eyed viewers scratching their heads, Reddit inbound.
At times, the film threatens to steep back into genre formulas, but Garland clearly has much more interesting plot-devices that develop throughout the 115-minute run-time, even if they are occasionally slow to surface. Much like Ex Machina, the film builds an uneasy atmosphere which gets increasingly claustrophobic and uncomfortable, as ‘The Shimmer’ mirrors real-world issues such as depression and cancer.
As the group venture further into the unknown, visceral action scenes begin to unfold as mutated swamp monsters and other uncertainties threaten the group’s survival. Lead by the impetuous but tenacious Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a sense of internal paranoia soon tears the team apart, with stellar supporting roles from Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez. Tonally, the film maintains a consistent feeling of unease, engineered by a terrific score from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, while Alien-esque body-horror prevails as the remains of previous missions are left to the imagination.
Channelling the cerebral intellect of Kubrick and Tarkovsky in its thought-provoking themes, it’s sadly a sign of the times that Paramount was skeptical of the film’s potential for success. Whilst American audiences are fortunate enough to be granted a theatrical release, the film is instead a return to form for Netflix, and like the best of science fiction, much is left to be examined. A cinema screening would have certainly been an incredible experience but for now, Alex Garland’s Annihilation will reward its audiences with its intelligence and originality.