Behind the scenes drama in Hollywood is nothing new. Annihilation has not had as dramatic a journey to the big screen as some movies have had, but its story is significant and no less noteworthy. Essentially, a studio executive at Paramount wanted the ending changed to be less complicated and less intellectual to appeal to a wider audience; the director, Alex Garland, and one of the producers, Scott Rudin (who had final say over the cut, stuck to their guns and refused. Paramount essentially gave up on the film, dumping it in theaters with little promotion. I’m glad that Rudin and Garland stuck to their guns, because Annihilation is exactly how I like my sci-fi: challenging, thought-provoking, twisty, and open to interpretation.
Loosely based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, the first in a trilogy by the author, the film begins with the same basic premise and then launches into its own story, differing from the novel. Lena (Natalie Portman), a professor of biology and former soldier, is shocked by the sudden reappearance her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), himself a soldier, who went missing a year ago on a classified mission. His sudden appearance is coupled with an immediate health scare, which is commandeered by the military. Lena wakes up in a secret facility known as Area X, somewhere along a remote section of the Gulf Coast. Area X is monitoring a growing anomaly known as The Shimmer, an area engulfed by a mysterious, translucent bubble. Lena learns that something inside The Shimmer caused whatever is happening to Kane, who was part of a previous expedition and the only person to make it out of The Shimmer after setting foot inside. Lena, with her science and military background, gets herself on the next small expedition that is heading into The Shimmer to try and solve its mysteries with the hopes of saving her husband. That team features a physicist (Tessa Thompson), a geologist (Tuva Novotny), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), and is headed up by a military psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
The film is an ever-escalating descent into what lies at the heart of The Shimmer, almost like a sci-fi version of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Tarkovsky’s Stalker is a very clear influence on the story and the visuals of the film, a sci-fi classic that also takes places inside a mysterious zone and has characters attempting to reach a room at the center of it. Along the way here, the small group of women come across hints of what happened to the previous expeditions, attempt to figure out the nature of the world around them inside The Shimmer, and encounter terrifying perils along the way. Those familiar with Garland’s previous directorial work, (Ex Machina) should know what to expect here; a sci-fi thriller that relies on atmosphere and is more cerebral rather than a sci-fi shoot ‘em up.
The Shimmer is beautifully rendered; it reminded me of being a kid and blowing bubbles. It has that slow-moving, soapy bubble look to it where there are hues of purple, blue, yellow and orange. Inside of it, the daylight is refracted in a unique way; the film has enough lens flare to make J.J. Abrams jealous. Everything else inside The Shimmer is also unique. The laws of Biology are being rewritten on the fly, but it creates some striking images that range from exquisite flora and fauna to terrifyingly mutated alligators and other creatures. There is an interesting mix of bloody sci-fi elements and tranquil sci-fi imagery.
In fact, one of the motifs of the film is duality; the existence of serene moments inside The Shimmer coupled with moments of the grotesque. On several occasions, Lena looks into a microscope to see cells multiplying and sees a light cell emerge and a darker looking cell emerge from the division. Toward the end of the film, when she enters a cave, the light from outside the cave casts two shades of light around her, one lighter and one darker.
Another recurring theme of the film is that of brokenness. At one point, Lena has a conversation with the geologist, Cass, about how each of them on this mission have some kind of trauma in their past that they carry with them, scars visible and invisible. The film strongly hints that all of these women are looking for something… more by embarking on this mission. Even Lena is looking for more than just how to save her husband. This is where the film either frustrates or entices, because it offers more questions than it ever answers, leading to a third act that is opaque and ambiguous and had me questioning everything I had seen and pondering the significance of the final moments of the film.
It’s nice to see Portman in a physical role in genre fare that she hasn’t had a chance to do since V for Vendetta, although, some aspects of the film brought Black Swan to mind for me too. Jennifer Jason Leigh gives an enigmatic performance as the leader of the squad venturing into the unknown. As much of a fan as I am of Tessa Thompson, she and Novotny have the east developed characters in the story. Gina Rodriguez gives a very strong performance as the fifth member of the crew, getting a few moments to really shine, including in the most intense scene of the film, a scene that is very unnerving.
Overall, Annihilation has the courage of its convictions to not pander to audiences and spoon-feed its viewers easy answers as to what is happening. Even if it doesn’t quite rise to the level of Garland’s previous film, Ex Machina, for me, it is a notch just below it and still gave me plenty to chew on. It deserves to be mentioned among the best sci-fi films of the last few years along with Ex Machina, Arrival, Midnight Special, and a few others. More importantly, it deserves to be seen by as many people in theaters to show studios that smart sci-fi has an audience.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars