TL;DR – Annihilation is a slow burn that then hits you like a freight train and then messes with your mind till it becomes putty, would recommend watching this, but maybe not at night.
Score – 4 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
What is good sci-fi? As someone who loves this gene in all of its permutations, good sci-fi could be the grand space operas of Star Wars, Stargate or The Expanse, the more character driven works like Moon and The Martian. They can be thought-provoking works like Star Trek or Arrival, or thumping action set-pieces of Mad Max. Now sometimes they can be the weird contemplative works that dip into science, horror, supernatural, blending that hard and soft sci-fi into new and wonderful ways, and today’s Annihilation is the later. Now before we jump in I do have to say because the film begins in medias res, that is it opens on the ending, it is hard to talk about the film without getting into [SPOILERS] straight from the start, even with our setting the scene part of the review. If you have not seen Annihilation you may need to be a bit more careful going forward, as there will be major plot points discussed throughout.
So to set the scene, Lena (Natalie Portman) is a former soldier and now works as an academic teaching biology at John Hopkins University. A year ago her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) left on a mission for the Army and was never heard from again, Lena is trying to move on with her life assuming he was killed in action when one day he walks into their house with no knowledge of how he got there and who he is. Well, things take a turn for the worse when Kane starts spitting up blood and an even worse turn when the ambulance taking him to the hospital is intercepted by military police and Kane and Lena are removed from the ambulance by armed guards. Soon Lena wakes up in a military facility overlooking Area X, an area protected by a shimmer emanating out from a lighthouse that was hit by something three years earlier. Several teams have been sent into the shimmer to try and stop it as it keeps growing and growing but no one had ever come back, well no one before now. With Kane dying Lena decides to join the next expedition into the shimmer with Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson) and Cass (Tuva Novotny) to find some answers.
Now in some respects this may sound like familiar setup there is some sort of no-go area and the military sends wave after wave of troops/scientist into it to try and work out what went wrong. There are even elements of Heart of Darkness as we know from the start that the expedition does not end well. However, there are a number of factors that set Annihilation apart, and the first of which is its almost all female cast. Now yes I see you typing your comments about Ripley from Alien or the better Aliens, and while yes we are starting to get more diverse stories within the sci-fi sphere with Killjoys, Star Trek Discovery, and Arrival, it is still rare to see a cast as powerful as this. Part of what makes the cast of characters as interesting as they are is that they are all broken in some way, I mean you would not go out there into the death zone without being broken a little. You only have a short time to start to care about these characters and their welfare, and Annihilation does a good job of setting that all up before an albino crocodile-shark hybrid attacks.
All of this helps propel one of the underlying themes of the film, self-destruction, which references what is happening to their DNA, what is happening to the characters, and what is happening to the plot. In the story of Annihilation everything under the shimmer is being refracted, the light, the radio waves, and even your DNA. This creates a weird and also beautiful world as the team traipses around a Florida swamp. Everywhere you look there are flowers that should not be there, moss that is bifurcating into weird and wonderful shapes, and then they reach the military base and things go dark, real fast. It is at the base that we find out that Kane’s team may have killed each other, intestines doing the tango, an exploded growing skeleton sculpture, and that bear. Annihilation hits fast and goes from a slow burn to an explosion in a blink of an eye.
From the production side of things, I think the film excels in both its set construction and dressing, and also in its creature design. Take the shimmer, it looks like a combination of a rainbow, an aurora borealis, and the look that petrol has when it floats on water, which is fascinating because what’s inside is both beautiful and deadly. Once inside there is a great work to make the world feel normal but then all around you there is something off with the trees, and the grasses, and flowers, and why does that tree look like a human. With the creature creation, you run the whole gambit with some like the deer that are stunningly beautiful and some like the bear so horrifying I am deeply, deeply, glad I did not watch this at night. All of this is highlighted by one of the best sci-fi scores that I have seen in a long time.
I really liked the acting from every single cast member throughout the film, every character is broken in some way and you see that come out in the actor’s performances. For example, when Gina Rodriguez’s character has her freak out it is for perfectly justifiable reasons and she plays it really well. There is a quietness to Tessa Thompson’s performance that I have not seen from her before, and considering her character in Thor Ragnarok (see review), goodness what a range she has. You can tell from the outset that something is off with Dr Ventress, more than just the guilt of sending all these people to their deaths in the past, and that is because of how Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the character, so when her cancer is revealed it is a moment where you just have to take in every aspect of her performance. Now, of course, we have to mention Natalie Portman because she is both the audience point of view character but also the heart of the film, which is a lot of responsibility, and it only works because of her amazing performance.
While I did really like the film there was a couple of things that I think did just hold it back a little bit. There were some plot points that just felt that they needed a bit more work. Like for example, Cass’ death felt completely unnecessary at that moment, and the whole sequences were really oddly set up and framed. Indeed, given how dangerous it was you have to wonder why they were not dropped off along the coast, rather than walking in through a swamp that could be dangerous before the shimmer came. These and a couple of other points are issues but they are only small issues and don’t really detract from the fascinating film they have here.
In the end, do we recommend Annihilation? Yes, yes we do. It is a wonderful sci-fi film that keeps you guessing throughout, equal parts amazed and horrified. It blends sci-fi, adventure, horror all together masterfully, and the closest film I can think of when watching Annihilation was Arrival, and that is a great company to be apart with.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Annihilation
Directed by – Alex Garland
Screenplay by – Alex Garland
Based on – Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Music by – Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow
Cinematography by – Rob Hardy
Edited by – Barney Pilling
Starring – Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, David Gyasi & Sonoya Mizuno
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Germany: na; New Zealand: na; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R