The notion of following up Alex Garland’s landmark of sci-fi cinema, Ex Machina, is unquestionably daunting. Though his directorial meddle wasn’t tested until 2015, Garland’s screenwriting career solidified his prominence within the genre with films like Sunshine and 28 Days Later. Through Annihilation, Garland’s craftsmanship ascends further. With his latest outing he has solidified his place in the conversation alongside the likes of Denis Villeneuve and Ridley Scott.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist struggling in the wake of her husband’s, Kane’s (Oscar Isaac), absence. His abrupt and unexpected return is riddled with suspicion, and his deterioration coupled with Lina and her spouse’s abduction by the Southern Reach only strengthens her reservations. After the agency informs her of “the Shimmer,” an all-consuming, kaleidoscopic veil growing each day, Lena agrees to breach the alien threshold and unravel its mysteries. However, after she and a team of researchers led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) enter the Shimmer, they are apprehended by psychological and biological nightmares alike.
At Annihilation’s onset, Garland establishes a careful symmetry within every frame, only to eviscerate it in the film’s second movement. At Southern Reach, Lena is viewed behind a trio of glass panes, those of which slowly shift within one another as the camera pans. Another instance finds Lena and her husband locking hands behind a glass of water, the liquid distorting their intimacy into an indiscernible mass. Where Ex Machina alluded to Garland’s thematic subtlety, Annihilation presents it in spades.
The film’s set design, specifically, as it appears inside of the Shimmer, is a beautiful chimera. As the local wildlife is broken apart and consolidated, virtually every bit of fauna bares the process’s toll. Colorful lilies gape like the mouth of a wildcat while an albino alligator is given the maw of a leech. As Lena and her team trek forward, the polymerized beings they encounter grow ghastlier. Garland has crafted one of the most imaginative illustrations of assimilation, forgoing visually darker standards in favor of something lush and unique.
Parleying off her previous, historical outing with Jackie, Natalie Portman brings a maturity to Lena often missing from horror and sci-fi protagonists. The character’s anxiety is constantly visible, but moments of piercing determination illuminate a heroine with a cause. Likewise, Portman’s co-star, Jennifer Jason Leigh, portrays an organic counter to Lena. Nihilistic as she is apathetic, Leigh injects Ventress’ demeanor into her every move and utterance. Together, Portman and Leigh form an undeniable tandem, and one can only hope their work with one another continues soon.
Despite Annihilation’s visually-striking aesthetic, Garland never sheds substance for the sake of spectacle. The film’s perspective rarely lingers, focusing on oddities only long enough to instill curiosity rather than waste time. One culminating scene involving a team member, Josie (Tessa Thompson), does feel a bit lackluster, but both the intensity of a subsequent scene and the nature of the character throughout work could provide a reason for the exception. The frame narrative of the film also feels somewhat unnecessary, only chiming in to ask the questions an audience may already be thinking. Still, this minor hiccup is hardly noticeable given the film’s bulk.
Annihilation is a welcome anomaly in almost every way. The film is horrifying yet enticing and strange yet familiar as Garland’s finger is constantly on the pulse of his work’s tone. An upward shift in Garland’s already powerful momentum, Annihilation is an apex of cinematic experimentation.
Annihilation is available on Digital May 22nd and DVD and Blu-ray on May 29th.
WICKED RATING: (8.5/10)
Director(s): Alex Garland
Writer(s): Alex Garland
Stars: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac
Studio/ Production Co: DNA Films, Paramount Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions
Length: 115 Minutes