Review – Alex Garland sci-fi ‘Annihilation’ is a masterclass of big ideas and smart acting

Luke Stevenson is one of the hosts of The Popcorn Muncher Podcast. He is only serious about Bee Movie.

Poster for 2018 Netflix sci-fi film Annihilation

Genre: Sci-Fi
Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: 12th March 2018
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong
Synopsis: A group of scientists take on a dangerous mission to explore a mysterious alien apparition, from which only one person has ever emerged after going in.

 

 

It may be premature to say that a director two films in to his career has become the master of his genre, but with AnnihilationAlex Garland’s sophisticated follow-up to the Oscar-winning Ex Machina – he has all but confirmed himself as the defining modern voice in sci-fi. The film doesn’t shirk big scientific ideas, but what it lacks in explanation of these complex elements of plot, it more than makes up for in its mastery of mood, atmosphere and emotion. To try to explain the science would bog the movie down when this is an essentially human story with its high-concepts as a backdrop – a way to push the drama rather than lead it.

Natalie Portman’s Lena is part of an expedition of scientists exploring the ‘Shimmer’ – a mysterious force that crash landed on earth with a meteor and has so far claimed the lives of every person to have entered it. The only exception is Lena’s husband (Oscar Isaac) who has made it out alive, but is obviously different from before. In a quest for answers, Lena is joined by four others in their exploration of the Shimmer’s beauties, mysteries and horrors, and how each of these things begins to irrevocably change the personalities of those inside it.

Its a credit to the film’s bravery that it doesn’t bend over backwards to explain its science, leaving that for blogs and interviews after the fact. This is merely the stage upon which the human drama can unfold, but it’s also a celebration of everything that sci-fi in a movie can be – ambitious, scary, mesmerising. Indeed, it might take two viewings to fully comprehend the weight of Annihilation. A second watch with that extra bit of insight might lift it from ‘masterpiece’ to ‘well, really a masterpiece’.

If there is a criticism to be levelled at the movie, it’s that it is steadfast in its obtuseness, seeing fit to only flirt with the full story that you, as a viewer, know is hiding behind some coded dialogue. However, there is inarguable success in its ability to leave you wanting more. There is no doubt that what you’ve witnessed is a full story of complex emotions and ideas, but the hunger with which you will attack each scene that hints towards explanation is a testament to the movie’s success at being so intriguing while giving away so little.

That is partly because of Garland’s eye for visuals, not just in the spectacle but in the slow moments. Often movies about people on a journey just feel like a lot of walking around, but with the Shimmer’s uniqueness swirling around at all times, each step and each location feels like a new part of an adventure, with each step bringing you closer into this playground he’s created.

The stellar cast deserves a lot of credit here. Portman shines in the starring role, and Isaac delivers constant intrigue both post-Shimmer and in his pre-Shimmer flashbacks. The supporting characters are equally given their moments to shine, but not in ways that feel tokenistic. Each character’s reason for being there serves the broad theme the movie is tackling, and each one of those is reflected in how the Shimmer manifests itself. Jennifer Jason Leigh gives the group a much needed edge and drive as no-nonsense leader Dr Ventress, Gina Rodriguez shines through Anya’s growing desperation, Tuva Novotny is a useful early foil as we begin our journey in the Shimmer and Tessa Thompson, in a somewhat quieter role than you might expect for someone who appeared in a Marvel movie last year, delivers real subtlety in the moments she is given.

Annihilation doesn’t promise all the answers, because it doesn’t want to give all the answers. What it wants is to make you think and immerse you fully into the experience you’re watching unfold. It’s impossible to argue, with every bead of sweat you shed while watching the Shimmer’s horror unfold, and every watery eye you get out of sheer wonder while not blinking at a mesmerising sequence, that this movie isn’t a stunning success.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

Alex Garland has continued to cement his genre mastery with Annihilation, which is a complex sci-fi tale laced with unanswered questions and an unusual tone. Strong performances from a diverse cast help to amplify the emotion behind a story that has no interest in explicitly setting out its ideas and aims. The unique concept of the Shimmer allows for a film that, in itself, is refracted through a series of bizarre lenses to produce an inscrutable, masterful drama.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

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