It would be fair to say that Alex Garland’s latest release Annihilation has come to represent a massive shift in the way that major motion pictures are now handling their release options. The intellectual science-fiction adventure was given a cinema release in the USA and China, but due to creative conflicts and a decision not to bow to editing and story changing pressure from executives, a deal was struck with Netflix to release the film to the rest of the world on the streaming platform instead. Though there will always be that ceremonial and wonder filled feeling that you get from going to the cinema, the be honest, it’s March here in the UK and it’s literally still snowing outside, so the opportunity to watch a new major film event from underneath the comfort of my duvet was greatly appreciated.
Annihilation tells the story of Lena (Natalie Portman), a former solider and biologist who volunteers to enter in to a mysterious quarantined zone nicknamed ‘The Shimmer’ after her military husband (Oscar Isaac) returns curiously changed and gravely ill from a year-long mission there himself. Alongside expedition leader Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson) and geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny), Lena and the team venture in to The Shimmer, finding a curious environment in which the DNA from every living thing appears to be combining and morphing, defying the known laws of science and nature to create new species and much more, to horrifying and mind bending effect.
The first thing to say about Annihilation is that it is not here to coddle an audience through its complicated theories and concepts. It is a science-fiction film that refuses to provide any more exposition than is strictly necessary, which means that you have to be on your toes when it comes to concentrating and understanding the machinations of the plot. I’m not going to pretend that I understood every single revelation in the highly conceptual and ambitious final third, but given the choice between something like this and something that lays it all out there in an overbearing manner, I’m picking ambition every time. Beneath the physical nature of the scientific and fantastical plot points are the foundations of themes like self destruction, grief and depression, themes that are universal and give the audience something to hold on to even when they are having a challenging time with the sci-fi concepts.
Following on from something like last year’s Wonder Woman, it just feels really flipping great to have a full blooded science-fiction thriller whose cast is made up mostly of women playing interesting, diverse and well developed characters. The all female team are sent on their expedition in to The Shimmer because the many men that went before them both failed to escape and failed to bring back results, and there’s certainly a metaphor or two in there to be taken in whichever way you wish!
Though I’m glad to have had access to the film via Netflix over no access at all, there’s no doubting that the intriguing and at times stunning visuals are best suited to a cinema screen. There is an almost dream-like, filtered quality to the setting of The Shimmer that is incredibly immersive, and the audience get to experience both the beauty of the DNA sharing in the form of interesting flowers, and the horrific consequences in the form of an alligator with shark’s teeth and developments even more distressing that I won’t go in to because #spoilers. Annihilation certainly isn’t an easy, brainless, popcorn style watch, but if you have the patience to explore farfetched and intellectual concepts, you will also be rewarded with sequences of genuinely heart pumping action in-between.
The film’s conceptual, intellectual feel of the film is balanced perfectly and given a great humanistic edge by the central cast of actresses at the centre of the action. As Lena, Natalie Portman gives an intense yet empathetic performance, a woman searching for answers to questions that she doesn’t even really know herself. Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr. Ventress is stoic and mysterious, keeping her cards close to her chest as the decision maker on what is essentially a suicide mission. Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny and Gina Rodriguez all do a wonderful job of bringing their characters to life with only limited time to do so. Rodriguez in particular gives a stand out turn, portraying a character that couldn’t be more different than the Jane The Virgin role that made her a true household name.
Together, the actresses share a great chemistry, at times enthused by camaraderie, at times threatened by distrust and tension. The dynamic harkens back somewhat to the group adventure type missions of a film like Predator, but this time the all female presence provides a refreshing take and vibe from the usually testosterone filled atmosphere.
Overall, Annihilation is a unique feeling science-fiction thriller that will test your intellect and satisfy your action needs in equal measure. Not as sedate as something like Arrival but not as tub-thumping as something like Aliens, for example, the film finds an interesting and rather captivating groove that will keep you thinking long after the end credits. Not to mention, it brings to visual life one to two of the most extraordinary and original sci-fi concepts I have ever seen. No excuse no to see this one, it’s sitting there waiting in your Netflix account right now!