Like a refraction of Ex Machina’s interrogation of artificial intelligence, Alex Garland’s Annihilation asks similar questions about humanity’s impulse towards self-destruction, through images that are psychedelic and grotesque in equal measure. In his second feature as director, Garland does away with the clean, minimalist aesthetic of Ex Machina and opts for something more akin to a hellish, 2 hour trip through the portal from 2001.
Natalie Portman leads as the stoic, somewhat distant Lena, a biologist quietly suffering following the loss of her husband Kane (Isaac). After he mysteriously returns, Lena is recruited for a 5-person expedition into ‘The Shimmer’, the area where he disappeared. Annihilation stands apart from most sci-fi with its mostly female (and completely terrific) main cast. Though these characters start off as stock types, each is fascinating and involving, handily sidestepping Strong Female Character cliches. A peculiar framing device is used, giving us an outline of where the plot will take us as Lena debriefs a scientist on what happened. Instead of dismantling any tension, it means that the creeping dread starts early on.
The Shimmer itself is a sight to behold, looking somewhere between a lens flare and light reflecting off of oil. Here, everything is undergoing constant transformation, plants, beasts, and humans alike coming apart and together again in an infinite spiral of creation and destruction. What we see in The Shimmer is tied into Lena’s feelings, but Garland leaves this to the audience to unpack. In this sense Annihilation is not unlike Solaris, using an inexplicable, uncanny Other to explore a personal relationship alongside the larger themes.
An incredible second feature from Garland, Annihilation is a visceral sensory experience that chills the blood and makes the skin crawl (literally), leading to a bravura conclusion that would make Tarkovsky proud and any jaw drop. If only Paramount had more guts.
CAST: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, and Oscar Isaac
DIRECTOR: Alex Garland
WRITERS: Alex Garland (written for the screen by), Jeff VanderMeer (based on the novel by)
SYNOPSIS: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.