When her husband vanishes during a secret mission, biologist Lena joins an expedition into a mysterious region sealed off by the U.S. government.
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Netflix has once again saved the day for a big budget, high concept science fiction movie. But, unlike “The Cloverfield Paradox”, it’s not because of a lack of quality: it seems to be more like it’s too challenging to merit an international cinema release. The movie in question is Alex Garland’s follow-up to the terrific “Ex Machina,” and “Annihilation” is as thought-provoking as one could expect from the tantalising prospect of a movie too daring for the big screen.
That doesn’t mean that the plotting is especially dense. One of the film’s great successes is that it tells an understandable, but layered, story. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist. Her military husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), is MIA after embarking on an important mission a year prior. When he shows up at their house out of the blue one day, the pair is taken to a secret government facility. With Kane suffering from a number of strange symptoms, Lena is debriefed about his mission.
An orbital impact has triggered a mysterious biological zone to slowly spread across the Southern US coast. Determined to find answers to Kane’s disappearance (and return), Lena joins a small team on the next mission into the “Shimmer”. The beguiling haze soon begins to play tricks on their minds and, the closer they get to the lighthouse at ground zero, the stranger things become.
Garland goes as far as signposting each narrative section, as he did in “Ex Machina”. “Area X,” “The Shimmer,” “The Lighthouse”: he never tries to wrong-foot the audience with regards to where we are in this story. Instead, much of the film’s mind-bending derives from the visuals. The film is absolutely stunning to look at, from the iridescent dance of the outer edges of the Shimmer to the exceptionally detailed production design.
As he did in “Ex Machina” (to Oscar-winning success), Garland brilliantly blends inventive CGI with textured and tactile practical effects. Even better still, while this world may have the hallmarks of the apocalypse (abandoned settlements and overgrown playgrounds), it’s colourful and thriving. The lush and vibrant vegetation carries with it an entirely different symbolic weight to the rotting aesthetic of most post-apocalyptic art, and one altogether more hopeful.
The sound design is also very good. Creative sound effects and the dizzying original score combine to build an ethereal soundscape that complements the otherworldly visuals. The very nature of the image and sound is ingrained in the DNA of this narrative. The glowing visuals become significant on levels far beyond surface sheen and spectral lens flares and shots through distorting barriers are soaked with meaning. It makes for a very rewarding viewing experience and one that lingers in the memory like a transcendent dream.
Portman is outstanding in the lead role. She captures Lena’s mourning in the complex balance between vulnerability and strength. And the team around her — Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny — provides strong support. Women dominate the film, even down to the students in Lena’s class. This is a major contrast to so much of the male-dominated fiction in this genre, but it comes without Garland ever feeling like he’s “playing the gender card”. The generic archetypes (soldier, scientist, skeptic, believer) are fleshed out to feel like real living, breathing, feeling people.
There are action scenes dotted throughout the film and they engage Garland’s genre origins in suitably disturbing fashion, but without disrupting the purposeful pacing. The film rightly emphasises the quiet dialogue scenes between the team, as they provide the film’s most powerful and compelling moments. The dreamlike visuals are immensely impressive, but “Annihilation” has the emotional weight to match. It’s cerebral sci-fi, but with a firm grounding in painfully relatable humanity. The film’s underlying warning, that humans too often confuse change for destruction, is powerful. And it’s felt in every cell of this beautiful film.
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