Over the years Alex Garland has become a staple in the science fiction genre penning films like “Dredd”, “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine”. He also penned and directed “Ex Machina”, one of the best films of 2015 and a modern sci-fi classic. Now, three years later, Garland returns to the directors chair with his most ambitious and spectacular film to date, and I do mean spectacular in every sense of the word. “Annihilation”, very loosely based on the Jeff VanderMeer novel of the same name, packs incredible visuals, memorable characters and well-paced storytelling to produce what promises to be one of the greatest science fiction projects of the year. Just how great is this film though? It’s my job to let you know what I think so here we go. This is my review of “Annihilation”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
“Annihilation” really doesn’t follow the book it was inspired by at all, taking concepts and settings and adapting them to what amounts to a pretty original story by Garland himself. This adaptation of the novel sees a group of women, psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson) and anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) enter a mysterious isolated section of land called “the Shimmer” which has been blocked off from society due to unexplained phenomenon and is spreading. No expedition has ever seen someone return until one man, Kane (Oscar Isaac) resurfaces a year after his lost expedition departed and reunites with the biologist wife Lena (Natalie Portman) only to show signs of illness. Lena and Kane are retrieved by member of the Southern Reach, an organization monitoring the Shimmer, and Lena joins the expedition of women to discover the secrets hidden within the Shimmer. What she finds changes everything she and her colleagues know about the world around them as Lean tells the story during an interview with Southern Reach personnel.
“Annihilation” features a primary cast of strong female characters giving us something very unique in itself, a fully female led science fiction thriller. Gone are the days where just one strong woman will due (God bless Ripley). “Annihilation” has five damaged but brave female characters who take center stage with incredible spot on acting and character development making each one stand out in the story. Leading the cast is Natalie Portman as Lena, a biologist who enters the Shimmer with the latest expedition to unravel the mysteries of what happened to her husband before his return. Lena is a well-developed character whose demons we see revealed as the Shimmer, or her own guilt, force her to relive her sins in her mind and her guilt over her husband’s involvement in the expedition grows with the story. Portman’s Lena is brave but afraid, confident but unsure. She’s fascinatingly human, driven more by her curiosity and her need to “know” than she is bravery or fear. As a leading lady Portman, as expected, hold her own but unlike many of her past performances where it just seemed like it was Natalie Portman acting in a role, this feels like a character that Natalie Portman represents. What I mean is Portman tends to be an actress that, at times fails to adapt to her character, instead adapting the character to her. It feels like Portman truly became Lena for this film and thus we get one of her best characters and an incredibly complex leading figure in the story.
Portman isn’t the only star of the show here. In fact, despite being the main character Lena doesn’t overshadow ANY of the other four women we spend the bulk of our time with in the Shimmer. The remaining four women all shine in their own way, some more than others. One of the most relevant is Jennifer Jason Leigh who portrays the expedition’s leader, psychologist Dr. Ventress. Ventress is a very quiet and soft-spoken person who seems both disinterested and fascinated by the Shimmer with an urge to understand it but also seemingly knowing she never will at the same time. Leigh does a great job making Ventress both understandable and unlikable at the same time. She’s definitely not a woman you want to have coffee with as there always seems to be an underlying plot within her mind, remnants of her literary character which is a comparison I’ll discuss farther down. We do eventually get to find out what makes her tick and why she seems to be on a suicide mission for the center of the Shimmer, but along the way she is one of the most mysterious elements of this film. A credit to Leigh for bringing forth a very controlled performance to give this character a sense of mystery. Like the psychologist in the novel, Ventress is as untrustworthy as she is wise and it’s not easy to mix those two traits convincingly. She’s not a villain, but she’s certainly not trying to be a hero either.
Making up the other three members of the expedition are Gina Rodriguez’s Anya, who is a former alcoholic, Tessa Thompson’s Josie, a suicidal post-grad physicist with a artistic perspective of the world, and Tuva Novotny’s Cass, a straight shooting anthropologist who quickly becomes Lena’s closest friend and confidant in the Shimmer. All three women do fabulous jobs presenting their characters as very unique women with their own demons and traits that set them apart and prove their significance and purpose for being in the Shimmer. Each one is an expert in what they do and each one is given fleshed out backstories as to why they chose to be on such a dangerous mission. They should all be commended as none of them are lost in the shuffle and every one of them exudes a mix of confidence and insecurity that, again, makes them fascinatingly human.
I’ll start off here by saying “Annihilation” is by far one of the most complex, beautiful and thought-provoking science fiction movies I’ve ever seen and it’s downright awesome to be able to say that so early in 2018. The visuals are stunning, the creatures within the Shimmer are creatively designed and, without spoiling too much of the twists and turns in the film, the creative use of real-life science concepts and applying them to the in-film world in new ways gives the entire experience a sense of realism and wonder. Director and writer Alex Garland had a vision and he saw it through to the very end with spectacular set pieces, well developed characters and science fiction concepts that are explained as much as they need too be while also leaving an aura of mystery for the viewer to interpret for themselves. To put it simply, “Annihilation” makes you think and wonder without leaving you completely in the dark and does literally everything a great sci-fi property should do. It asks questions about life and existence while avoiding pretentiousness and provides an immersive world for viewers to gawk over. And trust me, you WILL drop your jaw when you see the beauty and simplicity behind its design.
Despite it’s creative use of science fiction tropes however the movie itself is surprisingly down to earth. I used the word “human” a few times in my acting section and I use it here again because despite the film mostly taking place within a fictional territory “Annihilation” explores some very human themes including the nature of our existence and interpersonal relations in general including struggles with trust, patience, and when and when not to act. It’s all done throughout a smooth and well-paced story where we learn the mysteries along with the characters and experience the wonder of this changing world by their side without being privy to any understanding the women themselves have yet to develop. By the time the film reaches its epic climax we are presented with one of the most wonderfully surreal science fiction encounters ever that serves as a beautiful conclusion to a fantastic adventure.
Complimenting all this magnificent imagery and imagination is an incredibly haunting score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. If you’ve seen the trailers for this film you’re probably already familiar with the unique soundtrack that is saved for the most appropriate part of the movie. The soundtrack and the characters and script all evolve as the story progresses as we see characters change from calm to chaotic, the script go from quiet and reserved to desperate and panicked and the music crescendo to a point where the senses are assaulted in all the right ways to compliment the visual mind-bender that we see play out. This is how to make a truly well packaged film. THIS, right here, is how you capture a story and a vision. Much like 2017’s “Blade Runner 2049”, sound design, set design, character development, script writing and everything in between were all balanced and incredibly detailed to give us a fully immersive movie-going experience that I, personally, will never forget.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
As with any movie, “Annihilation” did have a few minor setbacks the most extreme for me being the story structure. I know this has become a cliché in my recent reviews, with story structure being a big talking point in my reviews of “Black Panther” and “Early Man”, but it still applies to this film because most of what we see is presented as a flashback of sort while Lena tells her story of the Shimmer to the Southern Reach. Immediately this complicated the story for me because we know what happens. We know Lena makes it out, we know she’s the ONLY one that makes it out, and thus most of the basics of what’s to come are spoiled right from the start. Yes the story is much deeper than that and it does add a bit of interesting context to the tale as we’re left to wonder if her story is true or if there were parts left out or exaggerated for both the interviewer and us, the viewers, but in the end, we already knew people wouldn’t survive. We just didn’t know how which made those revelations a little less impactful as we knew they were coming eventually. This has never been my favorite way to present a story and I would have appreciated a much more basic approach to “Annihilation” rather than a linear flashback. In the end the interview style approach didn’t hurt the film as much as it could or should have. It worked, but it didn’t work as well as the alternate.
While they are very small gripes my other issues with “Annihilation” were a few significant changes of the MANY made from the book it was based on, which, yes, I did read in anticipation of the film. While overall I actually feel the movie is far superior to the book in terms of overall presentation there were a few elements from the novel I wanted to see play out that never did. One major change was the anonymity of the characters. In the book none of the expedition members get names. They all just get titles and this was a big part of their characters which I think could have been an interesting element to add to the film. I understand why they added names to the five ladies, but these weren’t even creative names in my opinion. I mean Dr. Ventress to me was a cringe worthy typical “you should probably not like this person” kind of name to give the psychologist with its sharp tone. Speaking of Ventress, another major change from the source material that bothered me was the depth and motives of the psychologist who in the book is a more straightforward somewhat-villain than in the film. While I lauded Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performances, in the end the psychologist’s role is still very toned down from the book and it would have been nice to see the character develop more of a dark side. Not too dark. I’m not talking all-out villain. But if I had to compare the two versions of the character the psychologist in the book is probably the one aspect of the literary version of this story that I appreciate MORE than the film version despite how fantastic the movie interpretation is on its own.
As someone who read the book I have to say that if you’re walking in to “Annihilation” expecting a shot-for-shot adaptation walk away. This movie is NOT like the book. It’s more inspired by the book and that’s a VERY good thing because Alex Garland had a vision and he made it reality in the best way you can when taking creative license. Visually stunning, well acted, incredibly paced and insanely thought provoking “Annihilation” is a masterpiece that assaults the senses and forces the viewer to think about what if has to say while also providing a pretty straight forward science fiction film on the surface. It was one of the most engrossing science fiction films I’ve seen in a LONG time and, in my opinion, actually surpassed its source material to create it’s own story and interpretation of a fantastic concept. Best of all the film is less than 2-hours long meaning all of this spectacular quality is confined to a very watchable length and there are few moments where you ever want to look away. Alex Garland proves himself a true visionary with this film and it’s destined to be an underappreciated classic and, so far, is among the greatest films of 2018 and could very well hold that right regardless of what comes next.