A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.
Lena (Natalie Portman) sits in a plain jumpsuit, staring off into space, recounting her tale as the lone survivor of an expedition into The Shimmer. Lomax (Benedict Wong) stands before her in a head-to-toe hazmat suit mining her for answers. This would be the mental image that first comes to mind as I write this review, myself as the one that has experienced something I am still processing and you, the reader, wanting to know if it’s worth the time. I can say without hesitation, that Annihilation is one of my favorite sci-fi/horror movies of the past decade. A mix of cerebral science and visceral horror, Alex Garland‘s screen adaptation of the best-selling novel by Jeff VanderMeer is a densely scientific and terrifying journey into the unknown that I can’t wait to return to.
“Horror junkies will be equally pleased with the number of disturbing moments and imagery.”
The film is told in flashback. As the lone survivor of a reconnaissance mission, Lena recounts her story of survival. Her previous existence was a rather mundane one. Retired from the military, Lena was a celebrated professor at Johns Hopkins. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), has been gone for a year on a secret mission and assumed dead. That is until he suddenly appears in the foyer after a 12-month absence. The government quickly descends upon the couple after Kane suffers a medical emergency and whisks the two away to the site of Kane’s mission, Area X.
As her husband lay in a coma, deep in the secret facility, Lena learns that he was on a secret mission into what is being referred to as an environmental disaster zone. The Shimmer, as it is called, is an iridescent dome of undulating energies, emanating from the site of a meteor impact. As psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) explains to Lena, the dome is expanding at a very slow, yet unstoppable rate. Every expedition sent in has never returned, that is until Kane appeared on Lena’s doorstep. Upon learning that a new batch of explorers is set to venture in, Lena decides that she must join them in order to unlock the mysterious force that has her husband captive.
With Lena en-tow, the five-person expedition ventures in populated by Dr. Ventress, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (Tessa Thompson). Their mission is to make it to the site of the impact and simply collect data. Lena has a bit more to uncover. The world that the women step into is, in a word, surreal. Like stepping through a demented looking glass, beauty and savage nature linger around every turn.
“The deeper the expedition gets into the Shimmer, the more insane things become…”
Garland has established himself as a writer-director who embraces heady material. Ex-Machina’s ponderance of artificial intelligence and the creation’s relationship with a creator was a cynical exploration of science and innovation. Here Garland dives into duality. Nature and Man, the known and the unexplored, the beautiful and ghastly. Can one exist without the other? Can any of them coexist or does one cancel out the other? These are some big ideas that are packed into a scary sci-fi movie, yet Garland keeps everything present, allowing us to digest the meanings long after the credits roll.
The deeper the expedition gets into the Shimmer, the more insane things become. The production design is simply jaw-dropping with its fecund mixture of plants, animals, and life. The special effects are almost perfect in portraying mash-ups in plants and species that populate this deserted sanctuary of madness.
While the performances are all, “solid” I would say that Portman isn’t so much at fault for delivering a wooden performance as I would say that she isn’t given enough to work with. They can’t all be Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. Jennifer Jason Leigh, however, is perfect as usual. Leigh is at once stoic and sorrowful as Dr. Ventress and you just can’t take your eyes off of her. The rest of the cast is great and all deliver fine work.
“Praise must also be given to Paramount for letting another auteur have a big budget to play with and deliver something truly unique…”
The movie is still sinking in for me, but really, this was a wild ride. Horror junkies not unlike myself will be equally pleased with the number of disturbing moments and imagery. I can count at least three scenes that had this jaded horror fan coiled up like a clock spring, tense, giggling, and loving every second of it.
Annihilation is a challenging movie to be sure. It demands the audience keep up with the scientific explanations while the action keeps hitting at a relentless pace. Praise must also be given to Paramount for letting another auteur have a big budget to play with and deliver something truly unique. Unlike Aronofsky’s brilliant and divisive Mother!, Garland’s work on this film may at least appeal to a broader audience and a bigger return. At least I hope so anyway. In the day and age of the mega-event franchise movie, streaming “everything”, and binge-watching, it is refreshing to sit down and watch a movie where all bets are off. There is a sense of danger, a feeling of instability, that offers a thrill we rarely enjoy anymore.
Annihilation (2017) Directed by Alex Garland, Written by Alex Garland Starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sonoya Mizuno, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, David Gyasi, Benedict Wong, and Oscar Isaac.
Annihilation is worth Full Price (****).
Norm’s Rating System: Full Price (****), Matinee (***), VOD (**), Don’t Bother (*)