Written and directed by Alex Garland, “Annihilation” is his second directorial feature after the hit “Ex-Machina” released a few years back. This film, while maintaining an evolving yet clear style, is one of those rare movies that sticks with you-it buries itself inside your mind to stay with you after the credits have ended and you’ve driven home. This movie is everything I want from straight sci-fi films-no fantasy here (Which is fine, I enjoy ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ and ‘Star Wars’ too), this is simply a different kind of science fiction. It’s a film that, in my experience, grows on you with time. So, the plot of the film is that Natalie Portman’s character, Lena, is a biologist professor who has lost her husband (Oscar Isaac), a soldier who perished on his last mission. She teaches her classes solemnly in her grief before an event occurs that gets her sent to Area X, an observatory stationed just outside a mysterious phenomena nicknamed “The Shimmer”. Her dead husband was part of the last mission sent into ‘the shimmer’, nobody ever sent in has returned. At the observatory she is met by other experts preparing for a crucial final mission into ‘the shimmer’, the only scientific group so far- all other efforts had been military minded. All four members Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) each have their own personal reasons for joining a mission that is concerned by all others to be a death sentence. Finally Lena, an accredited biologist, decides to join the team, as her skills could be an asset to the potential research findings.
There are elements from the works of David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, H.P. Lovecraft, and Kubrick sprinkled throughout while never becoming homage or an ode to a specific style or anything other than itself. It reminds me of the greats of sci-fi without ever being subservient to what came before it. This film is somewhat difficult to discuss or review without giving up all of the secrets that the film has to give, so in the interest of piquing your interests reader, but without giving you all of the details, I implore you to give this film a chance. So, in order to facilitate a sense of the film so that you can better decide whether this is something you would enjoy or not, I’ll vaguely describe what I found to be the aspects of the film that made me love it.
First, and most reviews of this film will note on this, the film has some beautiful imagery once the team is inside ‘the shimmer’. The production design and the practical effects that went into making the effects that ‘the shimmer’ would have on our planet are fascinating, the flora and fauna have been altered by these effects in brilliant colors and mutations on a cellular level. The sound design, and choice of music paired with soundtrack, is crisp and tactile, warm and familiar, but cold and strange in other ways. A pairing of folksy acoustic guitar with moody and bellowing synth seems like it shouldn’t work, but the way the film incorporates these two distinct sounds and tones throughout the runtime works to great effect. The characters are also a real treat, none of them make illogical or unsound decisions, they are smart characters that seem like the experts they claim to be. No character turns out to be a dumb foil for another and they all make as much sense of the mystery they’re wading into as best they can. Let it be said though that while this film is slow and fairly brooding, concerned more with asking thoughtful questions than crafting horror movie antics to get butts into seats- it does have scenes of truly creepy imagery and horrifying brutality.
I feel as though revealing more would only be a detriment to those who might go and check this film out. Which I highly suggest doing. Smart sci-fi films like this are a rarity and if you enjoy such films, vote with your money. That’s the only way to encourage more risk taking from our cinematic storytellers. I say, go out there, make it weirder, make the story that drives you and fascinates you! Or at the very least, go watch a film that challenges you.
Final Score: 5 scientific explorers, 1 shimmer