After making a big splash in the sci-fi space with the intelligent but chilling Ex Machina from indie upstart A24 a couple of years ago, writer-director Alex Garland has stepped up to the majors with Paramount’s equally chilling Annihilation. But thankfully, all the smart sensibility he brought before is still there, even if the budget is bigger.
Ex Machina became that rare indie to take the Visual Effects Oscar over much bigger studio blockbusters, and it is nice to report that the ingenuity that went into that film hasn’t been sacrificed now that he is working on a bigger scale with an Oscar-winning star on board in Natalie Portman. Elements of Annihilation reminded me of movies like Alien, Arrival and the sort where an expedition travels into the unknown to uncover a secret that just might save humanity from a greater force out to destroy it. The good thing is this is even more of a thinking man’s (or, here, woman’s) sci-fi journey that certainly provides the thrills, gore and excitement we have come to expect from this genre without sacrificing intellect. While providing food for its ravenous creatures, it also provides food for thought.
As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), plot-wise Annihilation is relatively simple. Portman plays Lena, a professor specializing in the origins of division of cells and the like, who finds herself being interrogated about mysterious goings-on as the film gets under way. Then there is also the re-emergence of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), after a year on an expedition into what is known as Area X aka The Shimmer. He appears to be the only survivor after the whole group was thought dead. Kane isn’t much help in providing answers, and his condition quickly deteriorates.
In an effort to find out what happened, Lena signs on to join what just happens to be an all -female group taking a trip into the exact same place. The new expedition is led by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in the polar opposite kind of role she played in The Hateful Eight), along with a number of other kickass warriors played by Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny. Portman’s Lena might not be in their league physically, but it turns out she has a strong military background and acquits herself nicely in the mystical and exotic world of the Shimmer, a hazy, rainbow-like atmosphere set near the coast but leading to what exactly?
That is what they are trying to determine, but in no time giant alligators and ferocious bears — for starters — are on the attack. Are these creatures, looking like they are on steroids, what they seem, or have they been inhabited by cells of otherworldly forms that chomp on humans as a matter of sport. I don’t want to give away too much here, but the pace and style employed by Garland is right on the money. He isn’t afraid to let his story — based somewhat loosely on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel that comprises the first part of his The Southern Trilogy — envelop you slowly until you are fully in its grip. It’s definitely got the required bloody violence, particularly with a bear attack that rivals and maybe exceeds the one we saw in The Revenant, but the intensity only keeps ratcheting up toward a knockout conclusion.
Portman gives it all she’s got, along with the brave crew who, it should be noted, never make a point of their gender. The production values are first-rate across the board, all contributing to the atmosphere of dread mixed with indescribable beauty and mystery. Scott Rudin, Andrew MacDonald, Eli Bush and Allon Reich are the producers. Paramount releases it domestically on Friday.
Do you plan to see Annihilation? Let us know what you think.