Running Time: 115 minutes
Written & Directed by: Alex Garland
Featuring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Oscar Isaac
The Psychologist: “It’s destroying everything.”
The Biologist: “It’s not destroying… It’s making something new.”
When it comes to genre television and films Netflix really runs the gamut from incredibly complex high quality projects like last years “Stranger Things” (2017- present) and the release this month of the Alex Garland written and directed “Annihilation” (2018), to a high amount of unwatchable dreck that fills out their catalog, which changes from month to month. In terms of quality “Annihilation” has it all, absolutely great actors, an adaption from a series of popular highly regarded novels, one of the better novelists of the past twenty years who is now a well regarded screenwriter turned director and a film that operates on a number of levels, that pulls no punches for the audience. Garland challenges you to get on board, keep up or be left behind – which is a theme in the film.
The film itself is one of the best if not the best film this year, and if you live outside the US you can view it as part of your Netflix subscription, which is a blessing as well as a curse. On one hand we get to see a film that is excellent on all levels as well as being directed by a true visionary with a very distinct point of view, not only that but the film looks incredible with a vivid landscape. On the other hand we do not get to see it how the director intended, on the big screen which is a crime as the palette used begs for a big screen experience. This is actually a conundrum that faces Netflix on all its big ambitious movies, one need only look at the Oscar nominated “Mudbound” (2017) from last year that deserved a wide big screen release as well. Netflix is still a disrupter in the film space, but it is also not recognized as much as it should be as a creator/distributor of high quality films. That be changing with the Oscar winning documentary “Icarus” (2017).
“Annihilation” based on the novel of the same name by Jeff Van der Meer, spearheaded by Alex Garland who burst on the literary scene with his own novel ‘The Beach’, famously turned into a movie featuring then superstar Leonardo DiCaprio. Garland then burst onto the filmmaking scene with his Danny Boyle directed script “28 Days Later” (2003), which redefined the Zombie genre. Garland has since once again made a splash as director with his Oscar winning film “Ex-Machina” (2015) that featured stars on the rise Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson. With this sophomore effort it appears that Garland knows his way not only around a story but many of the other elements that make great films.
“Annihilation” begins at the U.S. government’s Area X facility on a Southern coast, cellular biology professor and former U.S. Army soldier Lena undergoes quarantined debriefing about an expedition into an anomaly called “the shimmer”, from which she is the only survivor.
In a flashback, Lena’s husband, an Army Special Forces soldier named Kane, returns without warning to their home after having gone missing on a mission. He remembers nothing of that time and suddenly becomes very ill. A government security force intercepts Lena and Kane on the way to a hospital and brings them to Area X, near where a shimmering electromagnetic field began to spread three years earlier. Psychologist Dr. Ventress recruits Lena into the project, explaining that military teams, including one with Kane, ventured into the shimmer. No one except Kane, now in a coma, ever returned. Lena joins Ventress on a research expedition consisting of them, physicist Josie Radeck, geomorphologist Cass Sheppard, and paramedic Anya Thorensen.
In terms of an adaption Garland has executed this very well, taking the ideas as well as some of the themes of the original novel, and creating something new that flows better in its new form than it would have if he had been dogmatic with the adaptation. Some of these choices I assume were for the actors, as the scope of their parts has increased and become more formal with flashbacks as well as motivations for choices being made clear from the outset, in particular with Natalie Portman’s character. The very fact that this film has attracted not only Portman, but Oscar Issac as well as rising stars Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and recent Oscar nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh speaks highly of this genre movie, that not only exceeds expectations but breaks out of genre conventions. All of these actors excel in their parts, you can tell from the off that they are not only aware of their characters but understand how they fit into the overall narrative.
Not that I am going to spoil this film as the least said the better as it contains some incredible surprises as well as some very beautiful moments, some are majestic, some poetic and some incredibly shocking. The word that comes to my mind when describing as well as thinking about this film is inevitable. The inevitability of death, of constant change, of life to not only survive but persist, as well as the nature of human beings to not only want to explore but to destroy at the same time. This film as well as the novel also postulates that human beings are not the center of the universe and life as well as nature does not revolve around us, we are servants to it – events that happen in nature are not motivated, they just happen, we need to roll with it or as a species we will not survive. Without giving to much away it becomes pretty clear early on that entering the shimmer does not necessarily mean death, it means change, that change however is on a cellular level, so that what makes us conscious entities may not mean what we think it means – we see this through not only the change the characters go through, but also some of the evidence left behind by others as well as the changing animal and plant life that is reflected in some of the trailers. Like life this film does end on a conclusion but on something ethereal that permeates the entire narrative as well as some of the left turns that “Annihilation” takes, in fact the name of the film is not a pejorative, it is a complimentary way of looking at the conclusions of the film. What we see as the film moves forward is that there might be a new way of looking at life, human life in particular – the inevitable change that nature has brought to us that we must embrace or face the consequences.
While “Ex-Machina” Garland’s previous effort is a very nice, layered looking film that on first watch is impressive for its subtly as well as subject matter, it is for all intents and purposes a film set in one place. With “Annihilation” Garland has taken a huge step forward not only in the themes involved but the scope and look of the film as well as the character interactions and what effect these have on the story. I find it difficult to remember a more narratively complex as well as assured second film ever, in fact after his debut it may have been tempting to direct something simpler, but the decision not to speaks volumes of the writer/director’s talent as well as assuredness. Garland has used a cinematographer, Rob Hardy who not only has an impressive list of credits but works a lot in film which means he is adept at making quick good decisions. This has paid off as “Annihilation” not only looks incredible but it also looks original which in 2018 is a very tall order.
Finally there are multiple homages to other Sci-Fi films as well as a few other genres, the most blatant is inherent in the novel, that is John Carpenters remake “The Thing” (1982) which tackled some of the same things that are present here. In fact the film opens similarly to that film as well as a myriad of other Sci-Fi films, a streaking meteor (or something) crashing into the planet. One of the major differences is that we see where the meteor lands, into a lighthouse, which is loaded, like the rest of the film, with meaning both overtly as well as hidden. The use of a lighthouse is important as it symbolizes the best of man, his most lofty of ideals, proximity ever closer to the heavens and God, and a towering signpost to guide the way and warn of danger. The beacon, shining out over the roughest and stormiest of seas, symbols of salvation and direction, leading those in danger to safety and security whether it be a danger of physical manifestations or of spiritual and moral trials and tribulation. This can be no more true than this film and as you watch you will see the importance of its use as well as the centre it takes in this movie.
If you live in the US then you need to head to your nearest cinema and see this film, if you live outside the US you need to subscribe to Netflix as soon as possible, with the added benefit of being able to watch “Annihilation” multiple times – you will not be disappointed
“Annihilation” is streaming on Netflix now outside the US, and in cinemas in the US.