Alex Garland is developing a justified reputation as an auteur for our times – he has written well-liked genre films, from 28 Days Later to Dredd, alongside a pair of the more thoughtful narrative games of this decade, DMC and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. His directorial debut Ex Machina cemented his position as a rising genre star, and his sort-of-straight-to-Netflix sophomore effort will add to his renown.
Annihilation is an enigmatic adaptation of Jeff Vandermeer’s opaque science fiction novel of the same name. In its early scenes we are given a surprisingly exposition-heavy explanation of ‘the shimmer’, an unexplained phenomenon on the American coastline that is expanding slowly and blocking out all man-made signals, obscuring attempts to explore it and sending back no survivors from investigative expeditions.
Our protagonist Lena (Natalie Portman) is confronted by the exception to this rule, though, when her husband (a sparingly used and convincing Oscar Isaac) returns from its depths in a confused and blank state of amnesia. His health shortly collapses, leaving Lena feeling compelled to join an all-female sortie entering the shimmer. Led by the secretive Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Lee), her other companions are Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Shepherd (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (Tessa Thompson). Their welcoming camaraderie is reassuring, and Rodriguez in particular does a fine job of establishing a rapport to later undermine.
For, as the team penetrate the refracting bubble of the shimmer, almost all of their senses and confidences are undermined. They suffer collective blackouts, quickly misplace the mutual trust with which they began, and encounter a variety of off-putting flora and fauna. The strange, light-bending aura is mutating plants and creatures great and small, and the results are more often unnerving or outright aggressive than they are friendly.
Garland never allows his audience the comfort of fully understanding what is taking place, and while this fugue is not as dense or correspondingly rewarding as in Vandermeer’s novel, it is nonetheless an effective device. Surprises are amped up by their other-worldliness, and a retrospective framing narrative establishes some useful and provocative questions as Lena nears the centre of the shimmer’s impact zone. Portman’s reliably excellent rendering of her confused attempts to remain rational act as an excellent foil for the viewer.
Annihilation‘s opening hour is that an unnerving and effective thriller, but its final act is quite another proposition. Reaching the heart of this alien landscape, Lena and we are confronted by spectacular sights, drawn into mesmerising exchanges of vital information. Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s eerie score flares into terrific droning life, and Portman’s terrified eyes are portals into which we are sucked. It is a tremendous sequence, and hurtles into a semi-ambiguous ending (some obvious visual retina trickery undermines the uncertain final moments, sadly).
With an adult tone and sophisticated telling, this is high-quality science fiction film-making, and a notable success for Netflix’s increasingly dreary cinematic output – perhaps explained by their having merely purchased distribution rights. With a slightly firmer emphasis on the pleasure of confusion it could have been carried even further, but what remains is nonetheless a thrilling and defiant film.