My mind right now is an absolute mess of thoughts, theories, ideas, questions, and potential answers all thanks to this incredible and intelligent sci-fi film from the creative mind of Alex Garland. Annihilation is best experienced knowing as little as possible, it follows a biologist named Lena (Natalie Portman) who signs up for an expedition to a place shrouded in mystery. And that’s all you need to know before going in. The film is very loosely based on the 2014 Jeff VanderMeer of the same name but this movie undoubtedly has Alex Garland’s fingerprints all over it. If you saw Garland’s last sci-fi masterpiece Ex Machina (2014) you’d know he has a knack for highly intelligent sci-fi that asks questions of society, highlights deep-thinking themes, and hides a lot more beneath the surface than above it. The movie is breathtaking, thrilling, terrifying, mysterious, and goes to places that blew me away and literally left me speechless.
I’m not going to go into detail about the story whatsoever but I will concentrate on Garland’s execution which is undeniably flawless. The story progresses at a carefully calculated pace and divulges enough information periodically as well as posing enough pondering questions to keep you locked in at all times. As pieces start to fall together they also seem to be getting further apart and it’s this back and forth throughout the story that will grab your attention very early on and never let go. It’s never too slow, nor is it too fast and it’s told in a way I initially thought would be detrimental to my enjoyment but it actually adds to your perception of events in ways I never thought It would. As was the case in Ex Machina, Garland exhibits a deft attention to detail to where everything ties together immaculately. I haven’t seen this film a second time yet and I can already recall small, seemingly minor or insignificant moments from early in the film that hint at and tie-in to some later themes very subtly. It’s this attention to detail that I love from Garland as it entices me to rewatch it multiple times and obtain new understandings as I did with Ex Machina. But of course, the multiple rewatches aren’t necessary as from a single viewing there is enough to divulge your own understanding of events, so you can see it once or five times and feel its impact.
If you are outside the US, this movie is available on Netflix, but I implore you to see this on the biggest screen you can because the imagery and visuals are utterly breathtaking. Garland has bought over his cinematography partner from Ex Machina, Rob Hardy, and I’m very glad he did because his work is astounding. Some of the shots in here are framed in a creative manner that makes them stand out and just when you think you’ve seen the most well framed shot, he one-ups himself. There is a certain level of bleakness to the world we see here with a lot of dark, dull colours plaguing the environment but Garland uses a range of otherworldly colours to make scenes pop. I love what he does with colour because it makes some of the most disturbing, haunting, or foreign imagery actually quite vibrant and stunning to look at. Just like in nature, some of the most dangerous things are actually quite beautiful. Composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury have also been carried over from Ex Machina and have created score that comes and goes at the most opportune moments. Sometimes they allow the chilling score to set the tone and transport you to this place, and others they just let the sounds of nature do their job and it almost never falters.
As far as the performances go, I have no complaints across the board and it’s no surprise when looking at the level of talent involved. The film follows a main group of five females played by Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tuva Novotny alongside Portman who are all great and each bring the most out of their characters. Portman is incredible and conveys so much emotion I loved every second on screen and the time spent going into her character is fantastic. Portman is front and centre in most scenes for reasons pertaining to the story which I’m not getting into here but these other performances around her are so strong they never fall into the background and are constantly on your mind. They each have some powerful moments where they react to certain situations in ways unique to their characters’ personalities so that works in strengthening them and their story arcs overall. In another reuniting from Ex Machina Oscar Isaac joins Garland on this adventure and for a fairly limited role he makes a lasting impact that I again, don’t want to expand on to retain from spoiling anything.
So, in the end, being a very intelligent sci-fi film and relying on a high level of engagement in what is going on and some interpretation on the audience’s part this won’t be for everyone. The slow calculating nature of events may not bode well with a lot of people as will the level of complexity it gets into with some of the themes and commentary it explores. But if you are a fan of intelligent sci-fi then this is absolutely one to check out immediately as Garland does incredible work writing and directing and every small story point feels relevant and connects in clever ways. The performances from the strong female cast are great and visually the film will capture your attention. It is unpredictable, goes places you’ll never see coming, and an adventure well worth taking.