Alex Garland's directorial follow up to the great “Ex Machina” is another cerebral sci-fi thriller. It is an adaptation of the first part of Jeff VanderMeer's acclaimed “Southern Reach” trilogy, though Garland has streamlined the story and made it self contained.
It's a good job too, as no franchise is about to be kickstarted here. Paramount buried the film after Garland and his producer refused to make changes due to “disastrous” test screening responses. Thus “Annihilation” was not screened for critics, only had one trailer and was unceremoniously dumped on Netflix (outside of the US and China).
It turns out once again that test audiences are morons, because despite having the name of a fifth tier Nicolas Cage thriller, “Annihilation” is genuinely great. Comparisons are being made Andrei Tarkovsky's arty sci-fi masterpiece “Stalker” and may not be too far off the mark.
A meteorite lands near a lighthouse on the Florida coast and soon a mysterious zone called “The Shimmer” begins to expand across the nearby countryside. Ex-marine and current biologist Lana's (Natalie Portman) husband Kane was part of a special ops team sent into the zone to investigate, but has been missing for some time. When Kane (Oscar Isaac) does return something seems a bit off, plus he appears to be dying from catastrophic organ failure.
Lana and Kane are hijacked on the way to the hospital by Southern Reach, a mysterious branch of the US military led by Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who are hoping to stop the Shimmer's inexorable advance. Lana and Ventress eventually lead an all female team of scientists into the Shimmer to try and find out what's going down.
Once there, they find themselves at the mercy of odd time anomalies and that plants and animals are mutating, which while making the flora look pretty is kinda bad news when the local fauna includes alligators and bears. However, the closer they get to the lighthouse, the more metaphysical the threats become.
“Annihilation” contains some startling, genuinely beautiful images once the action moves into the Shimmer. Bright, multicoloured vegetation climbs trees and buildings, light refracts in odd ways and the beach contains one of the loveliest and strangest things I've seen in a film for a while (I'll not spoil it).
It also features some shockingly gruesome scenes of body horror, as well some unnerving, real scares. The second scene with the bear (oh-god-the-bear) manages both at once, while the climax manages to be actually convey something convincingly alien. Once the film enters the lighthouse this viewer felt like they were holding their breath for 20 minutes as Garland bombards us with revelations and uniquely weird images.
Obviously Garland is best known for his writing, first as a novelist then with his scripts for the likes of “Sunshine”, “28 Days Later” and the hugely underrated “Dredd”, but “Annihilation” should cement his bona fides as a director. The cinematography is off kilter to better convey the oddness of the Shimmer, while all of the performances are just slightly “off”. Sometimes the actors are not using the right eye lines in dialogue, something which is so antithetical to the basics of making films that the result is very disconcerting. Even the usual film editing techniques could be masking time skips or gaps in Lana's memory.
“Annihilation” is a brilliant film, as thought-provoking as it is technically accomplished. I've only really talked about the latter here and not really touched on the film's themes of self-destructive behaviour, grief and malign biology. If the film is destined for cult classic status (which it almost certainly is) then that's just fine, but shame on that test audience for denying us the chance to see it on a big screen - 8