After a somewhat turbulent development period, culminating in Paramount Pictures deeming it too much of a box-office risk for real cinemas outside of North America, the dizzingly cerebral Annihilation finally arrived on our (small) screens in March, with Netflix showcasing it as one of their tentpole releases in a year that saw the streaming giants release ever-more progressive projects. Despite the reluctance of studio heads to support an off-kilter science fiction piece directed by a somewhat inexperienced auteur, one whose cast is made up almost entirely by women, Annihilation’s originality and bravery won out, finding an audience online despite a slightly tepid haul at the multiplexes.
Following on from his impressive mediation on the human experience with Ex Machina, writer-director Alex Garland once again ponders questions of the existential in his adaptation of the sprawling Jeff VanderMeer novel Annihilation. The film tells the story of a group of military scientists, based at a facility known only as Area X, who enter the Shimmer – a mysterious, quarantined zone of endless mutations which has created an immensely unstable eco system; one which has taken the lives of all who have gone in to explore its secrets.
Journeying into the unknown – joining a team made up of a psychologist, two scientists and a parademic – is biology professor Lena, played masterfully by Natalie Portman, who serves as the film’s emotional anchor. Engulfed by grief, Lena’s journey is one in search of not just retribution but self-enlightenment too. Motivated in part by the loss of her husband to an earlier mission, Portman’s performance is both brutally physical and emotionally punishing. It’s a combination that is rarely seen from her peers, in a role that counts as one of her best. Making her way through the Shimmer, we’re never far removed from her fear and, in turn, her bravery.
Joining Portman on the expedition is Tessa Thompson, an actor whose star continued to rise throughout 2018 with a turn in fellow ORWAV favourite Sorry to Bother You. Thompson’s physicist, Josie, exhibits the same anxieties as Lena – though without a pronounced backstory or flashback scenes, our only way to navigate the character’s ambiguity is through her measured performance. It’s one that reveals itself to be of equal heartache and, despite how a common connection is rarely established between the women of the party, it’s clear they’re all suffering with demons – not just the ones physically existing in the Shimmer.
Perhaps the main reason for a rift in camp is the furtive behaviour of psychologist Dr Ventress, played by a steely Jennifer Jason Leigh. Ventress initially acts as the trip’s instigator, and for much of this expedition she has the plans and holds the cards – though she’s by no means a leader in the common usage of the word. Her unclear motives and acts of weak morality create an environment of unease among the group, as she appears to play everyone against each other while mining for individuals’ deepest fears. It’s this general anxiety on which much of the film is bed, as it demonstrates that humans’ propensity for self-destruction is as terrifying as anything mother nature can throw up.
As the team close in on the Lighthouse, the epicentre of a cataclysmic natural event that has been identified as the reason for the Shimmer’s existence, the film’s visuals stun, as its nightmarish body horror makes way to surreal beauty. One such setup shows a garden of human-shaped plants, believed to be the result of refracted DNA as if the environment was a prism refracting light – despite its implausibility, it’s a truly stunning image. As the film reaches its climax though, we’re given one of the most inexplicably moving scenes of the year. Silent but for its monolithic score, it’s a piece of work that sits in the middle of a Venn diagram between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Black Swan – a sequence that words can’t easily describe.
As word started to emerge about Annihilation’s removal from Paramount’s international schedule, it wouldn’t have been a surprise for the film to have missed the mark and faded into obscurity. But, by bravely making such a beautifully vivid and deeply affecting movie, Alex Garland has made good on the will afforded to him after Ex Machina and proved Hollywood to be clearly lacking when it comes to backing intelligent, forward-thinking works.
Hopefully hindsight will help to return Garland to the good graces of the mainstream’s moneymen, as the virtuosic filmmaker stands as a true artist, one who looks primed to join the elite with a few more features. Having cut his teeth as a writer on the excellent sci-fi (or sci-fi-adjacent) films 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go, Garland’s shift to “auteur” status with a more personal vision feels that much more gratifying. Paired with his directing debut Ex Machina, Annihilation completes a devastating 1-2 of thought-provoking, aesthetically arresting cinema with a human heart, a combination not seen at this level since Nolan’s duo of Inception and Interstellar. If Garland is afforded the same trust, we could be seeing a new heavyweight of the genre.
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2018.
So to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 5…
5th – ANNIHILATION
Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of the year to read more on our Top 10 films of 2018!