Review: Annihilation (2018)

Annihilation

Rating

Director

Alex Garland

Screenplay

Alex Garland (Novel: Jeff VanderMeer)

Length

1 h 55 min

Starring

Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong

MPAA Rating

R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality.

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Review

In the realm of science-fiction, exploring our own socio-political environment through the lens of a foreign or futuristic society is commonplace; however, exploring merely human nature and philosophical questions of life is less common, at least as a stand-alone theme. Annihilation falls squarely into this latter concept.

Four years ago, writer Alex Garland made his directorial debut with Ex Machina, a critical smash that surprised with two Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Visual Effects and further surprised by winning the Visual Effects prize. Now, he’s picked up a higher budget and has brought Jeff VanderMeer’s novel to the big screen with Natalie Portman in the lead as an ex-military biologist whose military husband returns after a mysterious one-year absence.

The film’s premise follows Portman as she and a team of women push into an expanse called The Shimmer where all prior expeditions have been lost and whose mysterious origin and expansion defies explanation. As the five women explore a diverse biome of rapidly mutating flora and fauna, they must battle inner demons and unseen forces to reach the epicenter and stop whatever threatens the entirety of earth.

Portman is joined by a bountiful group of prominent actors including Oscar nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Benedict Wong, and Oscar Isaac. Each delivers a solid performance, but Garland’s aesthetic often requires emotionless delivery that doesn’t always allow the audience to connect with the characters. Portman has one early scene where she grieves her lost and presumed-dead husband, but beyond that, her vacant-eyed approach is sometimes off-putting.

Garland has such a daring and inventive visual style. Annihilation is overflowing with sensory splendor. The film’s eye-popping effects transmute familiar creatures into ravenous and terrifying beasts while the beautiful flowers and plants are both familiar and foreign. This is all built into Mark Digby’s gorgeous production design. The vivid and richly detailed environment draws the viewer into its almost surrealistic landscape.

Composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury craft an otherworldly score to accompany the action in the film, its minor chords and discordant strains add a layer of enigmatic intensity to the production. It’s a score that re-defines what a science-fiction film can sound like in a way that’s reminiscent of Vangelis revolutionary electronic composition for Blade Runner.

There are also plenty of heady philosophical topics for the audience to consider, looking into the nature of humanity, its self-destructive tendencies and the need to know and understand that which is foreign to us. While some embrace the melancholy and mystery, seeking insight, but ultimately searching for escape, others search for answers to their own misery. In this case, Portman’s Lena hopes that whatever lies at the center of this expanse will somehow bring her resolution, restoring what she has lost.

Annihilation never seeks to explain its mythos. Instead, it seeks to encourage audiences to explore the world around them, seek answers to the riddles of life, and refuse to accept defeat so easily. Garland’s film has a lot to offer for the diligent and focused filmgoer; however, its carefully structured, sometimes plodding revelation of details and plot may frustrate audiences more accustomed to quick answers and bountiful action responses, which are few and far between, but no less intense in a film like this.

Oscar Prospects

Probables: Visual Effects
Potentials: Original Score, Production Design, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing

Review Written

April 4, 2018

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