Annihilation is an instant sci-fi classic and cements writer/director Alex Garland as one of our best filmmakers in the genre, through both his writing and direction.
An adaptation of the book of the same name, Annihilation takes us into Area X following a team of female scientists who are the latest team to enter, even though no other people have made it back. What is Area X you might ask? Well, it is the land, somewhere in the southern United States, being engulfed by a “shimmer” that disrupts electronic communication into and out of it, so the world on the outside doesn’t know what it is either, until we follow our lead, Lena, inside it with the team of scientists. Once inside, things immediately get weird and tensions rise as things become more bizarre and unknowable.
Garland himself stated that this isn’t really a straight adaptation of the book, he read it once and then adapted his memory of it, so if you are coming for a strict retelling of the story, you will leave disappointed. Or maybe not. Garland has created such a tight and compelling film here, I find it hard for fans of the books or not to have a chance to get sucked into this world he creates for the big screen. Garland greatest achievement in the film might be the layer of tension that he lays over from the get go, with the film serving as one of the best horror films I’ve seen in some time. I was tense and filled with dread at almost every turn, with a couple of the film’s major “set pieces” being exceptionally well executed. He pairs all of this tension with beautiful, yet often terrifying, imagery and ideas, it just leaves your mind firing on all cylinders. The color in the film pops the deeper and deeper you get into Area X, the creature work is excellent in the few chances it needs to be, and the finale will leave you floored with the visual trip it sends you on. Garland outdoes himself here in his second directorial effort, making the most out of every element of his crew.
The film leaves a lot for the viewer to consider, but has enough of a through line of answers for those that needs some explanations to grab on to. Still, every stop along the way leaves you with a chance to wonder what the hell happened here, but I love the way Lena sums everything up at the end of the film too. Answers might not be able to be had with all of your questions, but anything that leaves you wondering is a gift with this rich a world. Garland never forgets to leave you with some thought provoking ideas, and Annihilation is no different.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena and she is great at working her way through the story as a tough minded person, but has flecks of vulnerability sitting right under the surface. She pairs well against Oscar Isaac, who plays her husband that we see in flashback, who also delivers as wonderfully as we’ve come to expect from him. There is a look he gives with just his eyebrow near the end of the film that is so damn good. Portman is convincing as an ex-Army with a PHD in Biology and never over does it with her reactions to this weird ass world she gets thrown into. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Dr. Ventress with a great, don’t give two fucks, attitude that keeps the grouping pushing on through Area X. Tessa Thompson is as solid as she always is in the film as well, and while I wish she got a bit more to do, she nails everything she’s asked of. Tuva Novotny is someone I hadn’t seen before, but she plays every scene like she has a secret, and I think it plays beautifully with ratcheting up the tension and otherworldliness of the film. Gina Rodriguez is the only part of the film that is a bit shaky for me. She’s good in the film, nailing her big scene, but she projects her character a little less delicately than the way the rest of the film is handled, and that was my only gripe with the movie. Not bad.
Annihilation is going to go down as a sci-fi classic that will be watched for years to come. It’s also a pretty great little horror film on top of that, with some A+ gore for people who are into that sort of thing. An early and strong candidate for best film of the year for me, this one will be tough to top.