Staff Writer cityXtra Magazine
Filmmaker Alex Garland’s (‘Ex Machina’) latest follows a team of female scientists, led by Natalie Portman, into a mysterious expanding portal that could spell the end of humanity.
Annihilation is a story about transformation and obliteration, which is fitting considering that it synthesizes various genre predecessors into something wholly unique while simultaneously laying to waste the stolid conventions that now dominate franchise-blockbuster moviemaking.
An intellectually ambitious, formally striking, and altogether out-there odyssey, Alex Garland’s film begins conventionally before spiraling into ever-more-hallucinatory realms, its every element in perfect harmony with its larger themes—all of which resound not as definitive statements but as haunting questions that linger long after the credits have rolled. In just about every respect, it’s the finest cinematic sci-fi in years—or, at least, since Garland’s prior Ex Machina.
That 2015 gem, in which Domhnall Gleeson 's computer whiz is tasked by Oscar Isaac’s reclusive CEO to administer a Turing test to Alicia Vikander’s robot (in order to deduce whether she has genuine artificial intelligence), was a more realistic sort of future saga. As has so often been the case in the illustrious career of Garland—the scribe of 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and the exceptionally awesome Dredd—Annihilation finds the writer/director pendulum-swinging back toward trippier territory, which in this case is a loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel (the first part of his “Southern Reach” trilogy). Devoid of gadgets and gizmos that might be on our semi-distant horizon, the filmmaker’s latest is a slow, suspenseful slide into the vast unknown—or, to be precise, into the deep, dank origins of creation.
Annihilation begins with Lena (Natalie Portman) seated in a sealed-off chamber, being grilled by a hazmat-suited man (Benedict Wong) about how she survived in an unspecified locale for four months without food—as well as the fates of her (clearly MIA) comrades. Before we can get our bearings, Garland cuts to a meteor hurtling through space, its final destination an Earth lighthouse that, upon being struck, is enveloped in an explosion of churning liquid-y material that resembles the rainbow swirls made by children’s giant bubble wands. Without explanation, Garland then jumps backwards to the past, to witness Lena, a biologist who used to be in the military, lecturing college students about the first ever organic cell division, and the “rhythm of the dividing pair,” which she states is the structure governing all that lives and die—including, as it turns out, Annihilation itself.
At home, Lena pines for Kane (Oliver Isaac), her soldier husband, only to be shocked when—after twelve months away—he suddenly materializes in the house, albeit confused about the secretive mission he was on (“I don’t know where it was, or what it was”). Their happy reunion is cut short when Kane suddenly falls ill, and on the way to a hospital, is grabbed—along with Lena—by shadowy governmental forces. Awakening in “Area X,” Lena learns the horrifying, and baffling, truth: Kane was part of the most recent expedition into the “Shimmer,” a rapidly expanding hot zone (think of it as a biodome made out of that rainbow-swirling stuff) whose cause and constitution is unknown. He’s the only one to have ever returned.
Desperate to find out what happened to her beloved (in an effort to possibly save him), as well as curious about the spreading-without-remorse Shimmer, Lena joins the multicultural team prepping for another run into the region. That squad is comprised of physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), magnetic fields expert Cass (Tuva Novotny), and operation leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), all of whom are, in some way, damaged, and in search of escape and/or healing. They’re also, obviously, all women, which—despite the fact that these characters define themselves, first and foremost, as scientists—lends the proceedings a distinct feminist vitality that eventually proves essential to the film’s mother-of-unholy-invention conclusion.
Garland’s actresses employ confident exteriors to mask increasingly uncontrollable internal tumult, and they’re led by a captivating Portman, whose turn (as with the story itself) is well-defined and lucid, even as it operates on the edge of intriguing obliqueness. What they find inside the Shimmer is a lush swampy wilderness where cell signals can’t escape, compasses don’t work, time seems to move at a bizarre pace (almost immediately, the women can’t recall setting up their camp), and different strains of flowers are sprouting from shared stems. Oh yes, and there are other things lurking in the Shimmer as well: big, unnatural creatures that thrash, growl and cry out in the voices of their victims.