The novelist-turned-screenwriter-turned director Alex Garland has returned with yet another gem about mankind’s relationship with the seemingly unknown.
Alex Garland has become somewhat of a poster boy for the sci-fi genre. Sure, he might not be like powerhouses Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick, or even sci-fi newcomer Denis Villeneuve, but Garland has sure shown that his penchant for slick writing, profilmic prowess, and tight directing is seldom a one-off hit. Garland has an inherent knack for telling creepy tales with extreme cinematic precision, coalescing slow cinema approaches with widestream appeal. It’s a rare feat, but one that Garland has seamlessly pulled off yet again, albeit with a few steps that will leave most audience members scratching their heads and feverishly googling long after the credits have begun to roll.
From his sharp screenplay for 28 Days Later and the uniquely unnerving Sunshine to the seemingly Twilight Zone-inspired Ex Machina, Garland has produced some of the most compelling and cinematically satisfying sci-fi works in recent memory. The filmmaker has had a unique trajectory, beginning his career in literature before eventually making his way into screenwriting and what would eventually be his calling–directing. It is here in the director’s chair that we are beginning to see the makings of an auteur, a filmmaker whose cinematic language is so apparent, so outspoken, and so obviously Garland that there can be little argument to the work’s authorship. Therefore, what he has established in Ex Machina, most certainly continues in his sophomore work, Annihilation.
The ominously titled film, adapted from a novel by Jeff VanderMeer of the same name, kicks off much like other classic sci-fi movies–with the arrival of a strange, biological meteor that has come crashing to Earth. It is as much a mystery as it is a threat. The only information they seem certain of is that the “shimmer” that surrounds the crash site in a pearlescent glow is growing by the week. People in the shadows of government are freaking out and trying to contain it. Dozens of expeditions have entered the shimmer and yet none have returned, including Kane (Oscar Isaac), Lena’s husband, played by Natalie Portman in yet another incredible performance.
Distraught and bereaved, Lena throws herself into her academic work and never attempts to move past her devastating loss, only to find her year-long missing husband standing in the doorway of their bedroom one evening. He has no recollection of returning home but Lena doesn’t care. Why would she? Her husband has finally returned home after a mission where she assumed he was killed in action. But something about her husband is not quite right. What began as delight and astonishment at his unannounced return soon turns to nervousness and suspicion as Kane begins acting strangely. It’s just at that moment that Kane suddenly becomes violently ill. But before the reunited couple can arrive at a nearby hospital, they are whisked away by a black ops team.
We soon find out that Kane is the first person to have returned from the shimmer alive, albeit with severe organ failure and internal bleeding. This gives the government hope that there just be hope in having a team successfully extract some–any–information from the ever-growing shimmer. Dr. Ventress, a psychologist (played with especial cold austerity by Jennifer Jason Leigh), will soon be leading a team that includes, a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), and an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny) into the shimmer to uncover any information they can of the shimmer and why past expeditions have failed so disastrously. As Lena learns more about the shimmer and her husband’s role, she grows increasingly bound to come with the new expedition, coming to serve as the unofficial Captain Benjamin L. Willard from Apocalypse Now.
While Garland pulls a few tricks and narrative devices from classics like The Thing, Alien, and even more nuanced art house beauties like 2001: Space Odyssey, Stalker, and Solaris, that is pretty much where the similarities to other sci-fi films end. They seem more like odes and bows of respect than any sort of overt pastiche (or rather imitation). Much of the film’s first and second act follows tropes and devices previously seen in sci-fi action films set in the jungle (think Predator but with badass, supremely intelligent women), and yet by the last act we are firmly in the cosmic etherealness and unnerving dissonance that Garland so gleefully resides in. What David Ellison of Paramount saw as a mishmash of art house nonsense (who subsequently demanded a recut), famed producer Scott Rudin saw as venerable work that deserves to be seen. Thankfully, Rudin had the final cut privileges.
As was the case with Ex Machina, Garland has a proclivity for framing his shots expertly and showcasing a film form that is delicate and beautiful yet exact and uncompromising. From the slow, wide angle shots that establish an otherworldly grotesqueness to the dissonant chords that strike unease in the hearts of viewers, Garland has created a world whose diegetic tapestry is as rich as it is unnervingly beautiful. And while Annihilation is certainly another stand-out from the filmmaker, it does not hit the same sort of profound notes that his previous work Ex Machina did. Whether it was the somewhat confusing conclusion in the last act or the unnecessary flashbacks of Lena’s life that add nothing worthwhile to the overall universe, it seems that Annihilation attempts to bite off more than it can chew in creating a world that exists beyond the shimmer. I say we just stay in the shimmer.
Annihilation hits theaters February 23rd before it is released on Netflix internationally 17 days later.