New Review: 'Annihilation' (2018)
Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, David Gyasi
You’ve seen it in the trailers. It’s the shot of the snout of a creepy looking creature coming between two women frozen in fear. We then cut to a close-up shot of Natalie Portman’s frightened face just as the beast behind her begins to let out its unholy shriek. To see that moment in the trailer, you think you’d know what to expect. It looks like a moment you’ve seen from many creature features that came before it. It certainly doesn’t prepare you for what it truly one of the most bone-chilling and terrifying movie moments in recent memory.
It all has to do with the way writer and director Alex Garland approaches the scene, and the film’s story (based on Jeff VanderMeer’s best-selling trilogy of books) for that matter. He gives us a scenario that we think we’ve seen before, and just as we’re ready to assume how things are going to play out, he throws us a curve ball that we couldn’t have possibly seen coming. As effective as the aforementioned creature attack scene was, it made me a little worried that Garland would turn the rest of the movie into a routine creature feature, where things would jump out of the dark and attack the characters, but it doesn’t. Not at all. Where it goes is far more hypnotic, horrifying, and haunting.
Annihilation is the best science-fiction movie that I’ve seen since Arrival. It is a movie that takes a number of thoughtful and thrilling ideas and continues developing them to the very end. Compare a movie like this to last year’s Blade Runner: 2049, and the difference is positively staggering. Blade Runner began with a number of intriguing ideas before abandoning them in the final third for a series of routine action scenes. Annihilation has the courage to end on an ambiguous note that’ll leave the movie still developing in your mind long after the end credits roll.
The less you know about the story going in, the better. Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a John Hopkins professor of cellular biology who served in the military for seven years prior to her becoming an academic. It was then that she met her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), a military officer who, in the start of the movie, has been missing for a whole year following his decision to take a secret mission. Then, Kane suddenly shows up at their house as Lena is painting their bedroom, with no recollection of his mission or even how he got back home. He suddenly becomes very ill, and on the ride to the hospital, a team of government agents runs the ambulance off the road and takes Lena and Kane into custody.
They’re taken to a research facility in Florida known as “Area X,” where Lena is confronted by the enigmatic Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). She tells Lena that Kane has fallen into a coma, and that the mission he went on that led to his year-long disappearance involved his journeying with a research team into a translucent and ever-growing force field that’s simply known as “the shimmer,” which is apparently the result of a meteor striking a lighthouse three years before.
The shimmer is a magnificent special-effects achievement, an indescribable barrier that is as mysterious as it is horrifying. Ventress tells Lena that they’ve sent many research teams into it to find out what’s inside, but Kane is the first person to come back after having gone inside. Ventress believes that if they can reach the lighthouse and discover the source of the shimmer, then maybe they can put a stop to it. Because she feels that it was her infidelity that drove Kane to take his fateful mission, Lena teams up with Ventress and her team – paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physician Josie (Tessa Thompson), and anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) – to journey inside the shimmer and hopefully discover a way to save Kane.
One of the complaints that I’ve heard made against the movie is that the character development involving the other women on the team is weak, and how each of them are defined only by a single characteristic. All of these women have skeletons in their closet – one woman lost her child to cancer, one has cancer, one has self-inflicted scars on her arms, and the other is a former addict – and while they don’t receive as much development as Portman’s character, every single one of the actresses succeeds in creating three-dimensional and totally human figures out of their characters. If the screenplay falls short when it comes to the other women, Leigh, Thompson, Novotny, and Rodriguez make up for it with their stellar performances.
The movie, of course, belongs to Portman, and as someone who’s seen her Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan, I can say without hesitation that this is easily her best performance to date. Lena is a character who is strong yet vulnerable, intelligent yet very flawed, and Portman never strikes a false note with the character. Her work in the film’s climax alone should be enough to garner her a nomination in next year’s Oscars.
Now about that climax. It involves the lighthouse that was struck by the meteor, and to give any more details than that would be positively criminal. The movie establishes an air of mystery from the very beginning, and the ending does nothing to betray that. That is to say that the movie doesn’t supply us with any concrete answers. Once we see what’s in the lighthouse, we’re still unsure of what to make of the source of the shimmer. Is it malevolent? What are its motivations? The movie never tells us, which is exactly how it should be. After all, given everything that we see happen inside the shimmer (and especially the lighthouse), what possible explanation would suffice? For the movie to try and provide one would seriously diminish the impact of the film, and especially the film’s very last scene.
In terms of pure filmmaking, the movie is flawless. Alex Garland creates a number of hypnotic images the likes of which I haven't seen before (there’s a moment involving a character coming face-to-face with a humanoid entity that is positively breath-taking). Production designer Mark Digby, set decorator Michelle Day, and the team of art directors create horrifying sets that leave you wondering what in the heck happened there, and unnerved when we’re never given an answer (take what the women find inside an in-door pool as a prime example). The cinematography by Rob Hardy is absolutely exquisite, but it’s the musical score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury that contributes the most to the film’s unshakable atmosphere. Just listen to the music when the women discover a video detailing what happened to the last crew that went in and tell me it doesn’t send chills down your spine.
Annihilation is a movie that encourages its audience to think. It wants you to think about its mysteries. It wants you to think an awful lot about that final scene (my friend and I discussed it quite a bit after the movie was over). It wants you to consider how these women deal with their journey into the shimmer, a journey which they are certainly never to return from, and some have their own reasons for wanting that (Ventress, at one point, talks about how destruction is an almost natural and biological process). There is a nightmarish logic to everything, so that the more you think about, and the more possible theories you come up with, the more fascinating, enriching and (yes) coherent the movie becomes.
This year’s The Cloverfield Paradox was an abysmal atrocity and easily one of the worst movies of the year, and while Black Panther was a good movie, it certainly wasn’t the faultless masterpiece that so many have claimed (it was just a superhero movie, guys!). Annihilation is, for me, not only the first great movie of 2018, but certainly the first great sci-fi movie of the year as well, and I cannot wait to see it again.
Final Grade: **** (out of ****)
Rated R for violence, bloody images, some sexual content, language