Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriquez, Tuva Novotny, Benedict Wong
Written by: Alex Garland (written for the screen by), Jeff VanderMeer (based on the novel by)
Directed by: Alex Garland
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Running Time: 1hr, 55min
While waiting for the film start, I noticed that the theater was unusually vacant for a press screening. It then hit me. This wasn’t a sequel, a prequel, the adaptation of a TV series, or even a superhero movie. In short, it was something new. Which means there is little interest. I am fully aware that there is a novel on which the film is based, but that is really nothing new. With eyes wide open and the tiniest bit of hope for something original, I sat down for ANNIHILATION.
A quick rundown of the plot for the uninitiated. Lena’s (Natalie Portman) husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), a soldier, suddenly returns home after being reported KIA (Killed In Action) for over a year. Before he can completely fill Lena in on where he has been, he starts coughing up blood. Black-clad government agents appear and collect both Kane and Lena. As it turns out, Kane is the lone survivor of a group of soldiers who ventured into an unexplained phenomenon called “The Shimmer”. Lena, a scientist and former soldier, volunteers to go into “The Shimmer” with the hope of finding out what happened to her husband (now being kept alive in isolation). What will Lena find? No one else has ever returned from “The Shimmer”.
A great hook and simple plot, however, what transpires is anything but. The best and simplest way to explain the film, my appreciation for it, and why no one will care for it is to liken to another film. A film that completely stands on its own, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968).
ANNIHILATION is a film that does not garner full explanations as to what and why causes “The Shimmer”, nor are there rhymes and reasons for the mutations, monsters, and overall freakiness which Lena and her team encounter. However, much like that of 2001, there are clues and the audience is forced to think about them. I know, it is a strange concept and one that many popcorn munching filmgoers will detest, yet that is what made my eyes go wider with each scene. There was so much to take in, discuss (afterward), and contemplate.
A key factor in the film is the replication of cells and how each repeats, grows, and changes in its environment. Alex Garland gives us multiple comparisons in the film. Are Lena and her team a virus in the environment? Is Lena there to find the other part of herself, Kane, so that she can become whole again? Without Kane, has Lena changed for good or is there a way back? All this is not answered at the film’s completion. Much like that of 2001.
The other comparison to Kubrick’s film can be made with the visuals and the music. Visually, 2001 set a standard for a space epic that was unmatched until STAR WARS (1977). ANNIHILATION is the exact same amount of eye candy, however, it is not in scope, but color and details. Each new life form (in whatever shape it comes in) is only revealed for as long as it needs to be. This pushes us, the audience, to use our imaginations to fill in the gaps. Only once does Alex Garland allow us to look down a monster’s throat, but that is to reveal how very different this creature is. After that, it is wide shots or extreme close-ups that never reveal the whole of the new species. As for the music, a traditional score with a big orchestra is, for the most part, replaced by an acoustic guitar. It reduces the film to a simpler story about one women’s quest, instead of a grandiose fight for the survival of a planet. Which is more fitting for this film.
No one is going to see this film. Why? The answer is two-fold. It is not the sequel, prequel, adaptation of a TV series, or superhero movie that we have all grown accustomed to at the theater (look to May for those films). Yes, audiences will be forced to open their minds to something new that they will [YIKES] have to experience without any prior knowledge. The second is that word of mouth will not be good because, again [YIKES], audiences will have to think about the choices the character, Lena, made. They will also not understand what “The Shimmer” was or what it was doing. As a bonus third reason, overseas, ANNIHILATION is already slated for Netflix. What does that say about the film to the American audiences? They will probably wait.
For this film aficionado, ANNIHILATION was a breath of fresh air in a sequel/ superhero era that has gotten tiresome. I saw a trailer for ANNIHILATION and was in. The concept and the director, who helmed EX MACHINA, were enough. To be completely honest, it was also nice to not have been inundated with over a year’s worth of fanboy hate, potential spoilers, and numerous TV spots in my face before I ever saw the film. I went in with an open mind, was thoroughly entertained, and above all, I was thinking about the film after it was completed. It has been a long time since I felt that way at the movies. Go see ANNIHILATION. Hopefully, you will feel it too.