A science fiction movie about an alien invasion titled, ‘Annihilation’, conjures up thoughts of a Michael Bay action extravaganza, not a heady, deliberate think-piece with lofty ambition and moments of abject terror, but that’s exactly what Alex Garland’s film is. This is the follow-up to his heady, deliberate sci-fi thought provoker, ‘Ex Machina’, although this time he is working from a script that he adapted from the first novel in Jeff Vandermeer’s ‘Southern Reach’ trilogy. While ‘Machina’ explored man’s relation to technology and notions of sentience affected by an imperfect creator, ‘Annihilation’ is a trek into the physical and meta-physical unknown, marked by a search for redemption and a deeper understanding of the human condition.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist, professor, and former soldier, whose husband Kane (an aloof Oscar Isaac whose presence looms over the film) has gone missing after a secretive mission (he stayed in the Army as Special Forces). He’s mostly seen in flashback until he shows up unannounced in a stupor, much to Lena’s joy and subsequent horror. This point sets up the conceit of the movie, as in order to solve the mystery of what went wrong with her husband, Lena gets the opportunity to follow his journey into the mysterious ‘Shimmer’, an oily, light-refracting, expanding haze under the secret scrutiny of the government. The nature of this phenomenon, the ultimate goal of its DNA distortion on the plant and animal life it engulfs, and what happened to those individuals that dared enter it, are what propel the story. The audience experiences the discoveries along with the exploratory crew, a unique assembly of characters and actors for a movie of this type.
The team making up the twelfth expedition into this otherworldly region where time and nature are mysteriously warped are all women seeking various degrees of personal fulfillment and deliverance. Portman’s Lena is there to piece together what happened to her husband, but also to seek redemption for internal conflict and a desire to understand the disruption of natural order. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays psychiatrist Dr. Ventress, on a personal mission to find a higher power. Tessa Thompson, as the taciturn physicist Josie Radek, and Gina Rodriguez, as the brash paramedic Anya, both play characters that are far from what audiences have seen from these two talented actresses to date. Rounding out the crew is Tuva Novotny’s Cass Sheppard, a sympathetic and empathetic anthropologist who has experienced the loss of a child. Each woman has different reasons for taking on what is ostensibly a suicide mission, yet they can’t begin to imagine what awaits them as they progress further and further into Area X.
‘Annihilation’ veers wildly from the structure and events of the short novel on which it is based, but what it shares is an ethereal, dreamlike quality not typically associated with genre fare. The film’s unique aesthetic creates an overall sense of unease. As the expedition treads over the familiar ground of past excursions, it becomes apparent that the force that is actively altering the natural world is truly and utterly alien. Like some of its forebears in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, this movie does not have easy answers, leaving an enthralled, intellectually stimulated audience to ponder what they have witnessed, and like those braving this deeply changed landscape, wanting to revisit over and over for answers . . .
Written & Directed By: Alex Garland
Running Time: 115 min.
* * * * (out of four stars) -OR- A