Alex Garland had already proved himself as a cult sci-fi icon, with the scripts for Sunshine and Dredd by the time of the release of his directing debut Ex Machina, which launched him sky high and left his follow up film a highly enticing prospect. That excitement is more than warranted by Annihilation, a major step up for an already rather excellent filmmaker that stands as the jewel in the crown for Netflix’s movie slate. Released in cinemas in the US and China, the rest of the world has to make do with a streaming only experience, and though that is infuriating for a film that absolutely deserves big screen attention, it should by no means stop you from seeing this visionary, intelligent sci-fi.
Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s book, Garland’s film centres on a team of five female scientists on an exploratory mission inside a growing area of unnatural physical anomalies, known as the ‘Shimmer’. Lead by psychologist Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), the team immediately find their perception of time and reality slipping away as they delve deeper into the wonders and horrors of the ever-changing mutated Florida marshland that Annihilation calls home.
Garland’s fiercely intelligent script is fascinated by the destruction of human lives and bodies, whether through cancers and disease or in our giving in to our worst impulses, and his use of the Shimmer to represent these themes is frequently inspired. Annihilation is best experienced with only a minimal knowledge of the plot, but its characters’ motivations to embark on what essentially amounts to a suicide mission are vital to its impact. Each is driven by their own personal mix of guilt, fear, and desperation, but we’re only given real insight to the headspace of Lena. She is venturing forth into the unknown primarily to find a cure for the mysterious illness of her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), the only person to ever return from the Shimmer.
In keeping the other four explorers (rounded out by Tessa Thompson’s self-harming physicist Josie, Gina Rodriguez as paramedic Anya, and Luva Notovny as geologist Sheppard) a mystery, Garland forces us to see the world solely through Lena’s bewildered eyes. The existential chill of not having the faintest idea of what’s going on is frighteningly rendered, keeping the tension humming and adding extra thrills whenever the group make an illuminating discovery.
Beauty and horror exist side by side in this new world, and at points are even one and the same. Garland’s design team have done astonishing work to show that the Shimmer’s influence is more than destructive. It warps nature to manifest fresh life, its newness emphasised by the colourful, sticky, and often utterly wrong flora and fauna, as if an infant god has been allowed their first use of the tools of creation. Human-shaped flowers and crystal trees are feasts for the eyes, but the grotesque fungal creations that coat the walls – in a verdant but sickening aesthetic very reminiscent of The Last of Us – hint at something much darker.
Annihilation is pretty far from a conventional horror film, but packs in some breathtakingly scary moments. An early encounter with a giant albino alligator with shark’s teeth is heart-pounding, but later made to look tame by the hideously mutated bear that stalks the group. Its powerful, lumbering body makes it formidable enough, but with an exposed skull and human tongue that can produce warped shrieks for help, the monster embeds itself deeply into your brain. At once a terrifying antagonist and a pained, confused creature that needs help, every second it was on screen had me covering my mouth, lest it hear my breathing and come crashing out of my laptop screen to devour me.
As the scientists approach their ultimate goal, the lighthouse from which the Shimmer first started emanating, things only get trippier and more spiritual. One moment in particular rivals 2001’s eternally fascinating stargate with its visual weirdness and splendour, but melds its religious-experience incomprehensibility with its human story. It’s an ending that needs a long time to fully unpack, encouraging varied interpretations and philosophical contexts. Reports have it that the studio panicked and desired a more conventional conclusion, hence the limited worldwide cinematic release, but praise be to Garland and his producer Scott Rudin for sticking to their guns.
Portman makes for a great anchor, her restless performing style suiting the brain-bending anxiety of the situation Lena finds herself in. The other actors are, by necessity, more opaque, but Leigh still manages to be intimidatingly cold and Rodriguez gets a lot to work with as Anya finds herself unable to cope with her inexplicable surroundings. Thompson bides her time before really making an impression, but when she does it’s simultaneously one of the film’s warmest and saddest moments.
A brilliant score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury meshes with unnerving sound design to complete your immersion in this strange new world. Their music starts out rather folk-y, before evolving on to more electronic sounds as Garland brings us deeper into the darkness and we move further and further away from a world we recognise. That there’s no opportunity for UK audiences to experience Annihilation as its makers intended is frustrating and upsetting, but when a visuals-heavy sci-fi film is still this involving on a small screen in your bedroom, it’s a sign of something truly special.