Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Ex Machina) is prophetic in his adaptation of the Jeff Van der Meer novel, Annihilation. The graphic visuals throughout the picture are paralyzing and the ambiance of the locations are unsettling. If the principal task of a director is to cast a film with actors who truly embody their characters, Alex Garland deserves an applause. In the film, a biologist (Natalie Portman), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez) enlist in a life-threatening voyage into an ecological catastrophe of the unforeseen where the laws of nature are nonexistent. The previous teams sent into the supposed environmental disaster zone had disappeared, including the Lena the biologist’s husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who had vanished for over a year.
In the set-up, we’re given a series of finely composed shots: a glow of light beaming around the earth’s axis; the light striking a lighthouse to ignition, creating a multihued bow of vivid colors with a vast horizontal haze of blur in place of an entry gate into what’s known as “The Shimmer”. The first image we see is Lena in sitting in a chair wearing a hospital gown, bewildered and mystified as she’s interrogated by a scientist who covers his face with a clear mask. Based on the questions he asks her, we determine that Lena has made it out alive. While the plot unfolds throughout her expedition into the shimmer, the story cuts back to Lena in the interrogation room where she’s answering questions subliminally.
There’s a lot of silence that serves better than dialogue, causing severe anticipation for the mystery to unfold. The dialogue is as if the characters are genuinely coming up with the thoughts themselves as opposed to performing written lines. Whether that’s kudos to the acting or praise for the writing, it deserves compliment. It is obvious that Alex Garland understands the proper use of dialogue in a motion picture. Though the film is filled with intellectual discourse, its used tactically and with purpose. The thought provoking interchange of scientific terminology is not meant to educate the audience, its there to serve the story. The information flow of ideas being exchanged from the characters are meant to entice the audience further into the complexity of the story, while immersed in the film while awake in the dark at the movie theater.
One may roll their eyes at Lena’s lecture to her medical students in the first act, and, complain that blotches of speech do not belong in cinema, but, soon find themselves nodding their head in the film’s mind-bending climax, in acceptance they were in the hands of a master craftsman in Alex Garland, realizing the instructional lecture was there not to portray Lena’s status as a Professor, but, to help you solve the film’s cerebral conclusion that laid ahead, unbeknownst to the viewer.
The film consistently maintains an intense flow amid its leisure pace resulting in an unnerving experience. However, one scene early in the film, where Lena and Kane lay in bed, we’re witnessing their chemistry as a couple before Kane’s vanishing in a flashback. All fine and essential, until we’re exposed to the unnecessary dialogue that carries on, realizing the characters have no objective or obstacles to overcome. They’re merely lying in bed talking to each other. The scene lacked the ‘give-and-take’ of conflict and in a story so carefully told, it’s surprising to hear the cliched interaction between the two, but, relieving to discover that it doesn’t reoccur in any other scene and the film quickly returns to its firm grasp on our attention.
This is a masterful film and its clear that Alex Garland either has a background in science or conducted meticulous research in writing and directing this film. Tessa Thompson lives and breathes her character with genuine reactions and facial expressions in an authentic portrayal of a physicist’s demeanor when interacting with fellow science colleagues who are masters and doctors in the respective fields. The physiology and physicality of her and Natalie Portman personify accurate depictions of the aura carried by biologists and physicists. Gina Rodriguez’s full-blooded performance is electric and aggressive. Her character’s permanently molded expression personifies the face of a paramedic who’s seen a lot of blood and carnage.
The cinematography of Rob Hardy (Mission Impossible: Fallout) appeared unconventional in its composition. Each shot is deliberately placed with irregular framing which can be refreshing for the eye and it clearly supports the theme of a world that doesn’t apply to the laws of nature. Plants grow differently in “The Shimmer” growing and wrapping around in ways unseen in reality. The Whimsical landscapes of dreaming and beauty by day in conjunction with the Darkness and fear of being eaten alive in “The Shimmer” by a monstrous creature by night juxtaposes a surreal contrast of images and emotions. The landscapes are gorgeous, but, the awareness of the situation and the unnerving feeling of the atmosphere contradicts the beauty of the imagery and we’re left with an erratic sensation. The camera stays on character’s faces without dialogue and brilliantly uses sound to enhance the situation.
The ethereal musical score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury supports the otherworldly elements of the story by increasing in volume, gaining momentum, while sinking in subtly, providing an eerie ambiance to further enhance the supernatural components of the narrative. Oscar Isaac gives a great performance showing us the difference between the human version of himself, filled with life and emotion, in contrast to his replica; a dreary and immobile facial expression reminiscent of a robot.
The film doesn’t end with a typical climax followed by an aftermath. Prepare yourself for a cerebral ending that will pique your intellect toward analyzation. The meaning behind the ending deserves a review in and of itself; Lena and Kane are not entirely embodying the spirit and soul of their previous existence anymore. They are not who they used to be. They can recognize each other, but, unaware that they were previously husband and wife.
The two are now one. But, with the growth of cells: one becomes two, two becomes four, four becomes eight, et cetera.
This is a modern-day Sci-Fi innovation in cinema, arguably equivalent to the affect Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner or Alien had on audiences in the ’80s. To think that Paramount Studios sold Netflix foreign distribution rights to Annihilation clearly depicts the Hollywood scare of distributing a cerebral film with fears of box office disasters. The minute a film gets heady, the major studios fear its commercial appeal, and rightfully so; Hollywood is all about making money. But, if you’re a fan of sci fi, you will be appreciative of the thought provoking subject matter and innovation of stunning visuals representing supernatural powers from outer space on Earth attempting to take over human bodies.
And hats off to Alex Garland for doing exactly what actresses in Hollywood are calling for. He empowers women in roles where they are courageous and heroic on their own terms and not because they were victims of rape or assault or seeking revenge. Natalie Portman’s character Lena is the epitome of authority and intellectuality. Before she became a professor of biology, she served in the military for seven years. Her brains plus guns equal fire in her performance as the machine gun wielding biologist, out for solving the mystery of “The Shimmer” because the men who entered before her either perished or went demented.