Making Something New
Filmmaking on the blockbuster scale has become incredibly formulaic. There’s nothing wrong with this, as the indie scene is ever-growing and plenty of big-budget films take risks more often. However, whether it be for monetary reasons or otherwise, studio releases are generally safe. Annihilation is not. In fact, it appears to have taken too many risks for some — hell, in most countries outside the U.S. it’s been dropped by its distributor, Paramount, and picked up by Netflix instead.
Annihilation is written and directed by Alex Garland — the same director of 2014’s Ex Machina — and is based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. After a mysterious, shimmering shroud covers part of the southern United States, the military and scientific communities send men in only for them to never return. When Lena’s (Natalie Portman) husband is the first one who does, she decides to join a group of scientists heading in to better understand the borderline comatose state her husband returned in. What results is a film that is thought-provoking, challenging, and engaging from end to end, proving that fresh and original science fiction might still be possible at the studio level.
The whole film feels somewhat like a dream. The narrative is regularly interrupted by Lena’s dreams or flashbacks of her husband, and these breaks are obvious. Less noticeable, however, are the numerous shots that filter and distort what we’re seeing, long before Lena’s team even come close to The Shimmer. For example, Garland and Rob Hardy, the cinematographer, frequently setup shots through a window or form outside of a clear hazmat curtain. They do this just about every time there’s an opportunity to turn a simple shot into something just a bit more ambiguous and, naturally, filtered. This haziness persists throughout the whole movie, popping up not just in the visual style, but in the narrative and dialogue as well.
The entire inside of The Shimmer is beautiful. Inside, familiar and natural things are twisted into something entirely new, and as the scientists discover this so do we. It’s picturesque and horrifying, stunning yet dangerous, and even the most ferocious beasts inside it are almost impossible to look away from. There’s an inherent beauty in everything The Shimmer spits out, and this is captured to perfection. The film makes you wish you had control of the camera just so you could take your time in taking everything in. The world is begging to be looked at and examined. And while many of the broad, sweeping glimpses are awe-inspiring, the smaller, simpler moments of The Shimmer are also impressive. As Lena studies the flowers or examines a mutant crocodile’s mouth for the first time, it feels as if the audience is part of the discovery. Much of this film’s success hinges on The Shimmer and its inhabitants being believable and real, and, from a visual standpoint, it always is.
Portman’s leading performance is solid, though I wouldn’t consider it her best work by any stretch. She does string together a number of impressive and convincing sequences to firmly ground the character. There are certain moments where her character reads as callous and cold, but this is more of a character and writing choice than it is any sort of subpar acting. The final act of the movie, which largely sees Portman performing alone with little to no dialogue, is simply excellent.
The supporting cast puts up a number of equally grounded performances. Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tuva Novotny round out the all-female team that accompanies Lena into The Shimmer. Each of these scientists brings their own specialties to the mission, and each of the actresses brings their own nuance to the film. And while the characters do feel a bit one-note at times (one is the quiet and nerdy, another the hard-nosed, no-nonsense leader), they’re all more dimensional than many other characters in similar films. Also, not to be overlooked is the fact that they are all women. In fact, Oscar Isaac, who plays Lena’s husband, is the only male lead in the film. These women are sent in because they are smart, capable, and prepared for the job, and their inclusion never once feels forced. Similar to Ripley in the Alien films, these women’s credentials never have to be proven or earned. They’re badasses and that’s that.
The film has one significant narrative hiccup, and it’s the inclusion of a certain subplot from outside the shimmer involving Lena and her life while her husband is away. In the context of the film, these scenes make sense, and it’s entirely understandable why they were included. However, the film would lose nothing were these sequences cut from the movie and they’re ultimately distracting. Aside from this though, the film is written quite masterfully. Garland has adapted the novel quite succinctly for the screen, and the runtime feels neither overly long or short. He’s given a great example of how to make an exciting and original science fiction film while still implementing and leaning upon familiar and well-written source material.
The music must also be mentioned. From the minute the trailer for this film was released what allured me was the overbearing and unsettling sound under it. The music in the actual film is just as good, and the intense final 20 minutes of the film are only as effective as they are because of the music and sound design.
Annihilation is a film that is left intentionally ambiguous. It’s not an easy film, and it doesn’t let you leave its world without forcing you to think a little bit. It gets under your skin and stays with you. Ex Machina was an independent and unique film, one that established Alex Garland as a director to keep an eye on when it came to original sci-fi. Annihilation proves that even with a beloved source material and a studio budget, he isn’t afraid to keep taking risks in his films. Regardless of its overall quality, Annihilation is far from a cookie-cutter blockbuster, and that alone makes the film commendable and worth seeing.