For whatever reason, Annihilation (2018) was a film that slipped completely under my radar. I have admittedly never read the books series – the Southern Reach Trilogy (by Jeff VanderMeer) – upon which the film was based and missed the trailers and promotional materials. I went into the theater this past weekend with no expectations. The only thing I knew before the lights dimmed was that Annihilation marks the second directorial effort from Alex Garland whose previous film, Ex Machina (2014), was one of my favourite recent sci-fi films.
Much of the fun of Annihilation lies in deciphering what is transpiring onscreen so I’m reluctant to divulge too much about its plot. At the start of the film, a meteor crashes in a national park along the coast line and a mysterious glowing shimmer surrounds the site, expanding further with each passing day. Military expeditions into the ‘Shimmer’ have failed with no one returning. A new expedition of female scientists is organized by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr. Ventriss that includes physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thmpson), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) geologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and biologist Lena (Natalie Portman). Once inside the ‘Shimmer’ the expedition members quickly learn that the laws of physics may no longer apply and that their chances of returning are slim.
To say much more about Annihilation’s story would rob viewers of a completely immersive and fascinating experience. The story’s original concept, developed by author VanderMeer, and the way director Alex Garland has structured the narrative provides one of the more challenging and engaging cinematic experiences I’ve had in a long time. Garland employs some non-linear storytelling with Lena’s interrogation after apparently escaping the “Shimmer’ book-ending the film. This story choice has the effect of setting stakes for some of the film’s characters as it appears that not everyone from the expedition survives. Flashbacks are used sparingly, introducing us to Lena and her relationship with her husband, giving more context to the character and her decisions – her character is relatable and fully realized in no small part due to Portman’s excellent performance.
Like his debut film, Ex Machina, Garland approaches the material in Annihilation very methodically using deliberate pacing. This is a cerebral film that does not pander to audiences with expository dialogue or unnecessary quick edits; Annihilation requires patience. Audiences that are able to adjust to the slower pacing and challenging story will be rewarded as Garland’s approach makes suspenseful sequences so much more effective. There are several scenes where the violence shatters moments of quiet with little, making them all the more shocking. One scene in particular generates an incredible amount of suspense with Garland’s use of editing, shadows, and sound. Yet much of the film’s suspense is also not generated by moments of action or violence but rather the discoveries of the characters as they piece together the mystery of the ‘Shimmer’.
In all other aspects Annihilation is a first-rate cinematic experience that reminded me of other classic science-fiction films like Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey. All the other lead actresses in the film are given a chance to shine, turning in fantastic performances. It’s refreshing to see a science-fiction entry anchored by a cast of female performers; Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance will hopefully lead to a much-deserved career resurgence. While his role is small, Oscar Isaac continues to remind film-goers why he has a bright future. Annihilation’s climax is a trippy and thought-provoking experience that will have viewers puzzling over its meaning long after the credits have finished rolling.
Annihilation’s complex narrative and thoughtful approach may not be for all audiences. Nonetheless, I found it to be a thoroughly engaging cinematic experience that marks another win for the science fiction genre that has seen several stellar outings in the last few years with The Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, and The Planet of the Apes trilogy. Alex Garland continues to set himself apart as a filmmaker of the future with his second directorial effort.