By midlandsmovies, Mar 13 2018 09:15AM
Annihilation (2018) Dir. Alex Garland
With a whole load of hoo-ha about this film being solely released on Netflix UK instead of garnering a full cinema release, I decided to stick two fingers up at that ridiculous decision by getting out my projector and sound bar and closing the curtains to create my own cinema experience in my front room.
Although I’ve been a defender of Netflix’s output in the past, and it’s honourable how it allows smaller filmmakers to take chances, the fact is that this is a large production with Oscar-winning stars and it’s a shame to see it’s not getting a cinema release at all in the UK (unlike the rest of the world). That said, here we are in my home cinema and what we get is a sci-fi fiction horror adapted from the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer.
Opening with a meteorite crashing into a lighthouse we are soon introduced to Natalie Portman as Lena, a former soldier and scientist who is recalling her adventure inside an environmental entity called The Shimmer. She explains to a hazmat-wearing Benedict Wong about this ethereal alien mix of colour and DNA-adapted plants and animals. We flashback to her home life with her husband Kane (Ex_Machina’s Oscar Issac) who has gone missing inside the same anomaly but returns heavily scarred by his experience and Lena is asked to enter The Shimmer to find some answers.
The back and forth of timescales – as well as a female scientist who is dealing with a loved-one’s illness uncovering alien mysteries with a bunch of fellow academics – harks to Villeneuve’s Arrival, but Portman brings her own vulnerability that we’ve seen to great effect in Black Swan and last year’s underrated Jackie.
Teaming up with expedition leader Jennifer Jason Leigh, the team is rounded out by paramedic Gina Rodriguez as Anya Thorensen, Tessa Thompson’s physicist and Tuva Novotny as a surveyor and geologist. But it’s Portman’s experience in cell division (the circle motif also reminiscent of Arrival) that seems to offer some explanation as to what is going on.
Garland uses some heavy-handed symbolism as the shimmering landscape is reflected in plastic wrap protecting her and Isaac’s home furniture, whilst later we are shown the glossy transparent vinyl surrounding his quarantined bed. This idea of protection and safe and dangerous zones is present throughout and Garland impressively gives us a colourful floral jungle full of Pandora-esque life – yet one that is full of unexpected tension. Despite the lightness and brightness, we are only given us much information as the explorers so their journey into the unknown is also ours.
As they begin to experience shared memory loss and hallucinations, the feisty females stumble across the remnants of previous failed endeavours. Garland doesn’t shy away from the shocking scenes as camcorder footage reveals gruesome internal body horror the likes of which has not been seen since Prometheus. An intriguing plot slowly discloses more disgusting fleshy revelations and a fantastic scene involving the group turning on itself whilst a creature stalks their tied up bodies created a level of dread only the awful Alien: Covenant could dream of.
Yet, as well as the horrific, Garland provides a beauty contrary to the abominations they come across. As it is discovered that much of the environment is the result of cross-DNA development, vivid images of ice-trees and people-shaped plants dot the landscape and are as intriguing as the obvious terrors lurking in the unknown darkness.
The superbly designed overalls and backpacks and a brilliant female cast that audiences will get behind reminded me of how Ghostbusters got the same investigative para-scientific conceit so wrong. We are with this group of powerful female scientists every step, involving ourselves in their personal, scientific and emotional lives throughout their excursion.
Annihilation then ends up being an engaging piece of excellent sci-fi tropes and characters that have clear motivations and are well acted by the cast. An amazing score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow builds to a crescendo in the film’s final Giger-inspired sequence and although the film has ideas and themes seen elsewhere, Garland adds enough new to the mix to create a successful slice of intelligent story-telling.
I can’t help but feel however that, like the protagonists, our own journey into the unknown world of how Netflix will work in the future is a disordered fusion. The mutated mix of a home release and cinema experience is a conjoined mess that simply doesn’t work right now.
Midlands Movies Mike