Annihilation: Dizzying, shimmering, extraordinary sci-fi
Shimmering surreal visuals10
Extraordinary sound design10
Anton Bitel | On 10, Mar 2018
Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, Benedict Wong, David Gyasi
Watch Annihilation online in the UK: Netflix UK
Lena (Natalie Portman) is both a soldier and a scientist. This might, as the psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) suggests, make Lena perfectly suited for the expedition that the two are undertaking with three other women: physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), geomorphologist Cassie Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and paramedic Anya Thoronsen (Gina Rodriguez). Yet it also marks a dichotomy in Lena, an internal conflict – as though she is, like the cells that she studies, a “dividing pair”. Similarly, although married to soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac), she was also part of a dividing pair in another sense, engaging in a self-loathing, self-destructive affair with fellow academic Daniel (David Gyasi), even before Kane had set off a year ago on a top secret mission (perhaps, indeed, that is why he agreed to the mission in the first place). Annihilation begins as Kane has seemingly vanished, leaving Lena, guilt-ridden, grieving and unable to move on. When Kane suddenly returns, confused, not himself and desperately ill, Lena finds herself drawn to continue his mission, in search of a way to mend Kane, their relationship, and herself.
We know from the prologue to Alex Garland’s Annihilation, set after a disoriented Lena has herself somehow managed to return and is being debriefed by a man in a hazmat suit (Benedict Wong) on her experiences, that her own expedition has gone terribly wrong. The rest of the film is Lena’s account of what happened, as she and the other four women, all damaged by illness (physical or mental) or loss, agree to enter and explore an irrational space from which no one else, excepting Kane, has ever emerged.
“A religious event. An extraterrestrial event. A higher dimension. We have many theories, few facts.” This is how Ventress describes the shimmering zone, gradually expanding outward across swampland from the lighthouse at its centre. The five walk into this place with backpacks and uniforms, looking like the crew from the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters – and quickly lose/find themselves in a strange area where their various fields of expertise (biology, physics, psychology, etc.) become radically challenged.
Which is to say that while Annihilation, drawn from the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, formally belongs, much like Garland’s Ex Machina, to the science fiction genre, it unfolds in a realm where conventional science has ceased to operate, and where the characters’ journey, although peppered with horror tropes cribbed from Lake Placid, Prophecy and The Thing, is ultimately an internal one. For these incomplete women, all alienated from themselves, are exploring an ever-shifting world that refracts, duplicates and alters the forms and thoughts of anyone within it; a trip into the inner space of a hall of mirrors. It is the kind of allegorical, even spiritual, science fiction found in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker, or, more recently, in Natasha Kermani’s Imitation Girl, in which characters are on a quest to find their identity in alterity, their self in otherness, and their innermost being in the alien.
The world that Garland has created here, constantly defamiliarised by impossible mutations, is a surreal place, natural seeming yet painted and sculpted with grotesque Dalí-esque flourishes and the odd flash of body horror. If ‘Area X’ drips with dread – and mostly the sort of dread that comes with change and mortality – it also shimmers with mystery and awe. For Annihilation is ultimately a cerebral work whose visual beauty, strangeness, heady sound design and sophisticated ideas prove Garland once more to be one of genre cinema’s finest living practitioners.
Annihilation is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Correction: This review originally mentioned that Annihilation would not be seen on the big screen. It was later screened in multiple UK cinemas.