By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
Alex Garland, the brilliantly innovative mind behind 28 Days Later and Ex Machina, uses his visionary talents to adapt the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. With Annihilation, Garland takes his audiences through another disturbing, science fiction journey and does so with gorgeously realized visuals and tense, haunting sequences of both horrific and metaphysical natures. The film is quite a remarkable experience that will leave fans of heady sci fi in absolute awe, but might leave casual viewers quite bewildered.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, an intelligent biology professor who believes she has lost her active duty soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) as his whereabouts have been unknown for a whole year. Still struggling to move on with her life, Lena is ecstatic, but shocked and a bit angry when Kane returns home out of the blue. Behaving bizarrely and disoriented at first, Kane grows deathly ill all of sudden. Before they can arrive at the hospital, a government agency intervenes and takes them both into custody. Lena discovers that her husband was part of a mission to discover the truth behind a major disaster area. In a desperate desire for both the truth and a possible answer to Kane’s illness, Lena joins a team of other scientists and a soldier to further investigate.
Though I thoroughly liked both 28 Days Later and its sequel, Garland first truly impressed me as a filmmaker with Ex Machina, a thought-provoking and fascinating science fiction film he both wrote and directed. After watching this film, I knew that the man had both great writing and directing chops and was capable of so much more. And though Annihilation is not an original concept of his, it still is a sapient, potent, and sublime work of cinema. Though I have not read VanderMeer’s novel, I feel it is easy to see that Garland’s touch is all over this amazing film, much like Stanley Kubrick’s not-so-faithful adaptations of other people’s works. Garland takes what is a phenomenal story concept and makes it all his own.
The film is at times a cerebral and surreal journey of discovering and experiencing things that are bizarre, frightening and nearly foreign to the normal human experience. There are sequences of exquisite beauty and exhilaration because of scientific discovery and realization, but there are also sequences of utter horror and despair as these new foreign elements create some monstrous abominations in addition to the uniquely gorgeous creations. I know I am being quite vague in my descriptions, but to elaborate would ruin the experience of discovering the magic, mystery, and fear on one’s own.
More to the point, Garland as a director has created an amazing setting with a wonderful mixture of aesthetic delights and ghastly horrors that should marvel and wow those who enjoy this type of movie. As a writer, Garland does a superb job of developing his film’s protagonist well in addition to creating some interesting and compelling supporting characters for her journey. Those wanting everything explained and craving absolute closure from this film will probably be disappointed that not every mystery is solved and not all questions are answered. Still, this film is based on one of a trilogy of books, and it is quite possible that more answers will come with more installments. If this is the case, I certainly hope that Garland and his cast will remain on board.
In addition to Portman who delivers an outstanding performance as Lena, the movie features excellent work by Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, and Benedict Wong. Leigh stars as Dr. Ventress, the stern, cold and determined leader of the science group investigating the aftermath of the disaster. Oscar Isaac gives a charming, but haunting turn as Kane, Lena’s loving husband who is obviously traumatized by his experiences. Tuva Novotny gives a memorable and charismatic performances as Cass Shepherd, a scientist on the expedition with whom Lena connects with the most. Even more memorable, though, is Gina Rodriguez who portrays Anya Thorensen, the tough and intense soldier escorting the scientists through the area.
I must also definitely applaud the work of the Art Direction and Art Department teams who helped create the bold and brilliant visions of VanderMeer and Garland. These essential crew members, the special effects team and cinematographer Rob Hardy helped Garland make this strange and surreal fantasy feel very real. The incredible score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury also heightens the action taking place on screen.
This obviously talented team of filmmakers and cast, under the inventive direction of Alex Garland has created what could be the impressive start of an exciting new science fiction franchise. I know that this might end up becoming a really tough film to sell to universal audiences, but cinephiles, particularly sci fi and horror enthusiasts, really need to support this movie so that the whole trilogy can also come to fruition. I sincerely hope that Alex Garland is totally on board for more movies, because his mad skills as a filmmaker could take this story arc to uncharted places. The only thing that could derail the entire vision from happening would be the lack of interest and thus, the lack of money. This movie certainly deserves all the love and financial support. For cinema to truly go where no one has gone before, innovative filmmaking needs to sell well. Go buy tickets, please!