It’s been a while since I’ve watched a sci-fi thriller that used silence in such a way that I could hear the leather of my neighbor’s seat when they moved. Annihilation is one of those film’s that reminds us of what a big budget Hollywood machine can do if given the opportunity. It takes us to perhaps one of the scariest places, our own imagination, and asks us to probe the unknown along with its protagonists.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist and Army veteran whose husband just returned home after twelve months of radio silence. Army sergeant Kane (Oscar Isaac) was thought to be dead, but his presence brings up more questions than a joyful reunion. Lena finds out that he went on a mission inside what’s called the shimmer. It’s a growing bubble that looks and glistens just like the stuff we used to play with as kids but is far from something to be toyed with. All we know is that things go in, but don’t make it out.
With Kane deathly sick, Lena decides to join the next ragtag group of people going into the mysterious shimmer that only her husband has come back out of. She joins psychologist leading the team, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic from Chicago, Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), an anthropologist, and Josie (Tessa Thompson), a physicist. The film unfolds over various points in time. It’s told in present day with Lena being investigated by a man in a hazmat suit, so we know one part of how the story ends, but through flashback, we’re able to fill in the gaps.
Director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) is in full control of his film as he cleverly parses out information at just the right pace. He allows us the film to push forward by constantly dangling a question before us. Whether it is what’s the shimmer? How has time passed within it? How has a shark and crocodile crossbred? Or something as simple as what’s that noise? We constantly question what’s happening on screen right along with the group of women who are trying to get the same answers.
As the group slowly begins to unravel and questions themselves and each other, we too are pushed to stretch our minds as to what’s possible within the shimmer. The casting in this film is exquisite as each woman is playing a character that goes against type for what we’ve come to see them in. Sheppard says at one point in the film “we all are damaged”. The way that Portman, Leigh, Rodriguez, Novotny, and Thompson display that on the screen through nuanced performances is a joy to watch. Tessa Thompson certainly stands out as the shy physicist with her physicality and ability to make her character seem so small in compared to the larger than life personas we’ve seen her take on in past works.
Garland’s imagery of this world is beautiful. Yet, he drops clues to what the world is through mise-en-scene (things specifically placed before the camera) by shooting through a glass of water, or plants in the shape of humans. What Garland keeps off screen is equally important as what is on at times and shows his understanding of the power of suspense and mystery in a film like this. In a film like this, the third act is the difference between a downer or a memorable film. Annihilation certainly delivers on a trippy but suspenseful third act that will leave you questioning the future of its world.
While Annihilation may not be on par with Ex Machina, it is a solid addition to the sci-fi/fantasy genre. It’s reminiscent of The Thing in how it constantly makes us and its cast question what we know. The fact that its all women in the lead makes it that much more exciting as they handle the material in a beautiful way that’s subversive of the norms we expect!