As debuts go, Ex Machina was mightily impressive. An uncommonly engaging sci-fi parable that expertly matched stylish pup thrills with big ideas about men and the machines they make, it unquestionably marked Alex Garland as a director to watch. Annihilation is one hell of a follow-up. Loosely adapting Jeff VanderMeer’s women-on-a-mission novel, Garland has crated a dark, mystifying rumination on humanity’s impulse for self-destruction and reaffirmed his status as one of the most exciting directors working today.
Natalie Portman is Lena, a biology professor numbed by the sudden loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who disappeared during a covert military operation. Then, a year after he vanished, Kane reappears at her door with no memory of what happened to him or how he got home. As his health rapidly deteriorates and he falls into a coma, the pair are taken to a secret military base where Lena learns her husband is the only survivor of an expedition into ‘Area X’, a mysterious zone on the coast of Florida surrounded by a soap bubble-like shimmer. With the zone rapidly expanding, Lena is persuaded to join a team of scientists (a psychologist, a geologist, a physicist and a paramedic) on a last ditch mission to find the cause of the phenomenon and stop its spread before it reaches human settlements.
It’s easy to understand Garland’s frustration that this Netflix-backed movie won’t be seen on the big screen. Annihilation is bathed in breathlessly wondrous imagery throughout. That’s particularly true in the realisation of the grimly dream-like Shimmer, where mutated flora and fauna have a vibrant, otherworldly sheen and play host to hauntingly beautiful sights like a family of human figurines formed out of twisted, decaying branches. These moments of beauty are increasingly punctuated by bursts of brutal, bloody horror as the squad encounters mutilated beasts and distorted human remains, their trust in one another gradually unravelling as they draw ever closer to the mysterious lighthouse at the centre of the zone.
This depth and complexity in the relationships and personal lives of the squad members is one of Annihilation’s most unexpected strengths. The expectation with ensembles is that at least one character get lost in the group, but here every member is given a clear, nuanced backstory to explain why they’ve signed up for what is essentially a suicide mission. That allows Garland to explore such weighty and challenging themes as grief, depression and terminal illness with a subtlety and sensitivity that never overwhelms the thrust of the story. And while the entire cast is superb, Portman is undoubtedly the standout, carrying the audience through this darkly perplexing world with a quietly resilient performance.
It doesn’t quite stick the landing, though. The concluding scenes stretch too far beyond reality to sit comfortably within Garland’s otherwise grounded approach as he searches in vain for a way to wrap up the central mystery. Yet, for the most part, he offers no firm solutions to the myriad questions posed by the Shimmer. Instead, we’re left to piece the puzzles together in our own time as Annihilation rattles around our heads for days after. Very few directors can claim to have such an everlasting affect on their audience, but Alex Garland is undoubtedly one of them.
Runtime: 115 mins (approx.)
Director: Alex Garland
Screenwriter: Alex Garland
Stars: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny