In an earlier review I praised the ingenuity behind The Cloverfield Paradox‘s surprise Netflix release and distribution as a clever and inventive way to promote a new blockbuster. Regrettably I don’t feel the same about Paramount Picture’s decision to sell the overseas release of Alex Garland’s Annihilation to the increasingly powerful streaming service, as the technicolour visuals and evocative soundscape beg to be experienced in a cinema setting. Having no other option but to watch it on a smaller screen does rob the creative and refreshing sci-fi of some of its power, but I’ll take the optimistic route and just be happy that it got released at all.
Annihilation is shrouded with mystery from the very beginning. We see a comet crash into a lighthouse, and Natalie Portman’s character, Lena, being interviewed by a dour faced scientist in a full HAZMAT suit. Apparently Lena is the sole returning member of an exhibition to an unknown location, and she doesn’t quite remember what happened to her. Garland’s screenplay jumps back to Lena’s husband (Oscar Isaac) strangely reappearing in their home after a year on a military deployment within a zone known as the “shimmer” – a strange fluorescent field extending from the crashed comet and slowly expanding over the US coast. With Kane remembering nothing of his time within the shimmer, and his body rapidly breaking down now that he’s out of it, Lena joins a five-woman team making their own journey in to figure out what happened and how to stop it. Natalie Portman gives yet another committed and emotional performance as Nina, and it’s nice seeing Oscar Isaac and Garland reunite, but it was Gina Rodriguez as paramedic Anya who had the standout performance for me. Anya starts out as a strong, friendly member of the team who welcomes Nina to the unit, only to get more paranoid and unstable as the effects of the shimmer become more apparent. It all culminates in Annihilation’s tensest scene, and demonstrates Rodriguez’s range extends far beyond the sitcom setting of Jane the Virgin.
As with his debut film, Ex Machina, Garland builds his world on familiar and believable foundations before exploring the more fantastical sci-fi elements. The world within the shimmer is earthy and floral, filmed in England’s Windsor Great Park, and cinematographer Rob Hardy emphasises the liveliness of the environment. It’s only as the team gets further in that things start to appear unnatural, represented by different species of plants blending together and creating vibrant mixes of colours along the same roots. The landscape continues to get stranger as the exhibition gets deeper, and all along the danger is visualised through these bright colours and unique floral formations. Production designer Mark Digby and the entire art department have clearly relished in the opportunity to create a world that looks both beautiful and dangerous. Garland uses other filmic tricks to give the shimmer a sense of unease, such as making the film edits themselves part of the story – scenes will start mid-way through with the characters unsure as to how they got there. Even the soundtrack begins to distort as the film progresses, with Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow favouring an acoustic guitar to set the tone early on before switching to distorted electronica for the otherworldly climax. It all leaves Annihilation a feeling like a mix between Event Horizon and 2001: A Space Odyssey – raising the deep questions of the former while threatening the nightmarish dangers of the latter.
Garland, having previously written the screenplays for complex films such as Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and Never Let Me Go, has never shied away from exploring deep questions in his work. Annihilation has numerous interesting concepts to discuss, many of which are developed in surprising ways within the film, but the climax does lean more in favour of abstract ideas than an actual resolution. This is hardly unusual in science-fiction, and I’m sure many viewers will embrace the questions the ending provokes, but I confess to preferring the peculiar yet grounded world that had been established prior to that point. Regardless, Annihilation is a promising sign that the strengths Garland displayed in Ex Machina weren’t a fluke, as he continues to create fresh works of science-fiction that aren’t afraid to favour the viewer’s intelligence over special effects.