Runtime: 1 hours 55 minutes
Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tessa Thompson
We all watch films for our own reasons. What seems like a masterpiece to one may just as clearly seem like a disaster to another. The inherent subjectivity of film is founded in the multitude of ways we the viewers determine value in the art form. For me, the best films are like dreams – they vividly articulate a compelling vision by means of rich narrative, prevailing tone, and effective execution. My particular criteria for great cinema is why my favorite film of 2017 was Darren Aronofsky’s extremely polarizing mother! and it’s why Annihilation is likely to be my favorite film of this year.
Annihilation, directed by secret sci-fi auteur Alex Garland, takes after the common genre trope of specialized-team-confronts-a-mysterious-event-horizon, with the “team” here headed by Lena (Natalie Portman), a former US soldier turned college professor seeking answers as to the circumstances of her husband Kane’s (Oscar Isaac) peculiar return from a covert expedition into “the shimmer,” an other-worldly energy mass that’s slowly enveloping the planet. Rather than Kane’s return being a miracle due to the fact that no one has ever entered and returned from the shimmer, his unexplained escape from the quarantined zone raises more questions than answers, compelling Lena to tag along on the next expedition inside to discover what happened to her husband. Lena is joined by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Cass Shepard (Tuva Novotny), Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), each with their own personal motives as to why they’ve volunteered for this suicide mission. When Lena and company finally enter the shimmer, they soon learn the fates of prior expeditions’ and the nature of the shimmer itself.
Director Alex Garland has openly professed his interpretation of the film’s source material, the first book in the “Southern Reach Trilogy” by Jeff VanderMeer, as being like a dream, and that’s exactly how he made his film. Every frame of Annihilation feels like a fleeting memory of the dream you had the night before. Every detail of the production is hypnotically surreal, from the imaginative visual effects to the earthy cinematography to the unsettling film score. The shimmer itself is radiant and lush with life and beautiful scenery, but the haphazard nature of the mutations to the environment and the living creatures (and humans) within it, gives the alien habitat a nightmarish aesthetic that can only be described as such.
Like all good science fiction, Annihilation is about a lot more than just its high-level premise. Garland uses the original source material, as a guide to explore what makes humans succumb to their self-destructive ways. But what I find most interesting about the film’s allegory is its presumptions of self-destruction as a biological inevitability. In other words, what if our tendency to sabotage ourselves is not merely a consequence of worldly circumstances, but instead an outer manifestation of cellular, biological mortality. Early on in the film, Lena (Portman’s character) defines the eventual death of the living cell, the moment mitosis stops, as a universal flaw – a flaw that if corrected, would render death obsolete. And that’s what “the shimmer” ultimately does: it addresses that flaw, albeit with unpredictable and often times deadly results.
Annihilation is the genre at its best: mixing a compelling mystery, unique visuals, and genuinely insightful themes. Like last year’s mother!, some may not be as impressed by the film as I was, and that’s perfectly fine, but if you’re a serious fan of science fiction, it would be criminal to pass this film up.