REVIEW: 'Annihilation' (or what Alex Garland is trying to do to my mind)

Natalie Portman stars as Lena in  Annihilation , directed by Alex Garland.

Natalie Portman stars as Lena in Annihilation, directed by Alex Garland.

If there’s a director who’s at the top of the science fiction food chain right now, it's Alex Garland. Annihilation is his second film as a director and it ticks off everything you’d want in a sci-fi horror-thriller; it’s deliberate in its pace, the visuals are ambitious and outstanding, and its incessant prodding of the film’s themes and ideas makes its modest 115-minute run time feels like it manages to accomplish a lot.  

Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist who tags along with an expedition team that ventures into a quarantined danger zone known as “the shimmer,” a reference to its blurry, bubble-like veil that surrounds the area. She’s joined by four other team members, each with their own motivations for going on a one-way journey, which unsurprisingly tears the team apart when they start getting threatened by the unknown and a host of terrifying creatures, including a mutated bear that’s the stuff of nightmares.

It wouldn’t be a Garland film without its fair share of violence and gore. While Annihilation is a slow burn film that really soaks you in and makes you want to peel back the dense forestry that surrounds its mystery rather than sprinting through to the finish line, the scenes that needed to be quick and terrifying and visceral are just that. The violence in Annihilation never feels gratuitous, because it’s used rarely and carefully, and the body horror is one of the film’s most poignant pieces of art, invoking strong references to Renaissance human anatomy and some of the film’s themes.

The problem with a lot of modern horror-thriller sci-fi films is that it’s quite obvious which characters will survive and which ones won’t. I think, over the decades, plot twists that seemed original are much more commonplace now, but Annihilation avoids most of that by telling the audience the result of the expedition in its very first scenes. Self-destruction is briefly mentioned in a line of dialogue but it’s a pervasive theme throughout the entire film, and one of its strengths is showing how each character deals with death and pain and how they ultimately choose to end their fight.

Interestingly enough, this is the second time Garland has used a female lead in his film, previously casting Alicia Vikander in the excellent Ex Machina, and follows a recent trend of gun-brandishing sci-fi female heroes, including Katherine Waterston in Alien: Covenant. I’ve always found Portman’s performances more stilted than natural, but it works here because Lena is a character who makes a conscious decision to hold things back, but it’s also thanks to the chemistry between the team members that allows the characters to really progress. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s eerily detached performance as team leader Dr. Ventress is a highlight, as is Tessa Thompson’s Josie, whose path of self-destruction leads to a gut-wrenching final moment.

A team of five female scientists enter the Shimmer, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, and Gina Rodriguez.

A team of five female scientists enter the Shimmer, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, and Gina Rodriguez.

Garland’s signature is the distinct lack of dialogue as the story enters the final act. The characters and their motivations are developed through flashbacks with little exposition, but that’s part of what makes his sci-fi films so fantastic – he really allows the characters to discover things for themselves along with the audience. By the time the third act rolls around, there’s not much more to say than to simply show it; when Lena reaches the source of the shimmer, there’s about a 20-minute sequence where there’s basically no dialogue at all, but by that point the film has already presented enough imagery for the audience to understand what it’s trying to say. For Garland, the gradual process always seems more important than the weight of its ending, and it’s one of his films’ biggest strengths.

The ending will certainly be the subject of many discussions, and it’s definitely weird and strange and takes a lot of risks, but it works because Annihilation had already fleshed out a world in which weird and strange things are possible. Much like Interstellar where the special effects were innovative rather than simply brighter or louder, Annihilation is like an alien kaleidoscope, a mish-mash of different colours and lights in all different shapes and forms. The final scene, in which Lena’s mission debrief ends and the film leaves its final thought, is open to interpretation, and in this aspect Garland does somewhat disappointingly follow the conventions of recent sci-fi films of ending on a twist, as if the film isn't already mind-bending enough and felt it necessary to twist the knife.

Annihilation is a fine film that deserves recognition for its visual effects and production design, and it will most likely gain the most steam in the best adapted screenplay categories, a nod to Garland’s efforts for adapting Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, a feat most felt would’ve been very difficult.

Annihilation gets three and a half stars out of four.