Annihilation review: the most thought-out sci-fi movie since The Arrival

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In today’s spoiler-sensitive entertainment environment, there may be people who dislike the opening scenes of Annihilation, which gives most of the direction of the film. A biologist named Lena (Natalie Portman) survived a cataclysmic event. Sitting in an isolation room, surrounded by angry people in protective suits against hazardous materials, she is questioned about what has just happened to her. In the process, she reveals who of the cast of characters yet to be presented survives and who dies. And the scene makes it clear that while some of her companions may be alive, only she has returned to report. This framing device can’t quite be called foreshadowing: the details Lena exposes are too solid to be shadows. These are only forecasts. And they hang Annihilation with an inevitable sense of lead.

But it’s a mark of achievement for the film that even knowing the outcome doesn’t dispel the tension. Annihilation is an ominous and cerebral film. It’s beautiful and immersive, yet distancing. It is more fascinating by its ambition and its distinctiveness than by its real action. And giving so much detail on the ending, writer-director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) seems to emphasize that Annihilation is not about the dynamics of who will live, or the fast paced mechanics of action scenes. It’s about the slow, quiet journey Lena and the others take into the unknown, and how it affects them emotionally.

Throughout the film, which loosely adapts the first book in a Jeff VanderMeer trilogy, Garland revisits Lena’s after-action reports to add insight into what she felt and thought during her experience. But the framing aside, it begins with Lena mourning her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac, who also starred in Ex Machina), who disappeared a year ago during a secret military mission. Lena has been an Army vet for seven years herself, and her current career as a Johns Hopkins biologist gives no indication of how tough and ruthless she can be in a combat situation. But when circumstances lead her to join a team investigating a strange phenomenon known as The Shimmer, she straps her backpack and picks up a rifle as if she had never put it down.

The Shimmer started at the site of a meteor impact and slowly expanded, engulfing a patch of land in an energy field that resembles a slick of pulsed oil swept through the air. Several teams of investigators and soldiers have been dispatched to the area over the past year, and none have reported or returned. It’s a compelling mystery, and potentially even an exciting challenge for the right kind of person.

Peter Mountain / Paramount Pictures

But Garland is more interested in using The Shimmer to explore the human need for self-destruction. Since the all-male army squads have failed to conquer the region, Lena’s team of explorers represents a new tactic: They are all female. Psychologist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), scientist Cass (Tuva Novotny) and paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez) barely comment on gender choice. But the personal mix is ​​another matter. As Cass points out, each of the women has reasons to hate each other and feel guilty, which could explain what they do on a possible suicide mission. In a more literal and clearer scenario, their specific reasons for anxiety might unfold in an obviously appropriate manner and lead to their specific ends. But Garland uses women’s stories in a more abstract way, to illustrate what might cause people to venture deeper and deeper into strange and dangerous territory, against all common sense.

There are certainly surprises in Annihilationslow and frightening walk towards the lone survivor situation depicted in the opening scene. Some even go through conventional action sequences. But above all, Garland accumulates the weirdness and dread factor of the world inside The Shimmer. There are specific principles at work in the phenomena uncovered by Lena’s troop, but they unfold in various quietly unsettling ways, suggesting a wide range of potential ugly deaths to come. Annihilation follows the familiar form of sci-fi horror found in movies from Extraterrestrial To The Cloverfield Paradox, with a cast of isolated characters, slowly picked up by a force they don’t understand. But Garland’s movie looks more like Denis Villeneuve’s recent sci-fi hit Arrival, another slow, airless and compelling film filled with moments of sudden and explosive action. As Arrival (Where Ex Machina, Besides), Annihilation is a thoughtful and philosophical film, more interested in the nature of humanity and the drives that drive us rather than who lives or dies.

Garland’s film, however, owes much more to an older film: Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 Russian masterpiece. Stalker, also about a group of people who have gone on an expedition to the center of an alien region, where their internal struggles are manifested as part of a grand metaphor about the human condition. As Annihilation, Stalker is a gripping, cerebral film about the baggage people carry and how that can manifest itself in a surreal setting that reflects people’s inner lives in unpredictable ways. The plot parallels are significant, but Garland’s use of an oppressive atmosphere and some of his specific visuals towards the end are even more revealing. And so are his specific concerns in the script, over memory and perception, and what separates people from their surroundings and from each other.

Stalker was not particularly well received in the first version – The New York Times‘Janet Maslin focused almost entirely on rejecting her rhythm “in a staggering and slow fashion”, and other contemporary critics have mainly focused on her stunning visuals. Like so many clearly avant-garde films, it wasn’t recognized as a classic until much later. Annihilation seems destined to follow the same path. This is nothing like a safe commercial movie: like Ex Machina, he asks viewers to be patient with his mysteries and with the relatively subtle emotional responses of a group of characters who are all clearly suppressing their fear and frustration, until the moment they explode. As Arrival, it’s strikingly beautiful, with an increasing emphasis on the alien aspects of its surroundings as the story progresses. Towards the end, Garland brings in some trippy visuals from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the kind of puzzle ending that seems intended to send viewers running to friends and the internet to unwrap clues and spin theories. But only the most patient and responsive viewers are likely to find the film satisfying. This is not passive entertainment: it requires intellectual engagement with the themes and a genuine interest in Garland’s ideas.

Paramount Pictures

The only element in Annihilation who feels accessible and mainstream is the cast. Portman and Isaac have easy, engaging chemistry in flashbacks of their time together as a couple, especially in a winning bedroom scene where Lena aggressively pokes fun at Kane’s attempts to sentimentalize their relationship. This sequence alone marks her a bit like an iconoclast, a woman with strong opinions and a quirky, unusual but well expressed sense of humor. Leigh makes Dr. Ventress equally fascinating, playing her with a dismissive drawl that is both painful and hurtful to the other characters. And Tessa Thompson, Thor: RagnarokBoastful Valkyrie displays a more vulnerable side here as the least militarily skilled warrior of the bunch.

But all of the actors reduce their emotions as the story unfolds, and they quickly cease to be distinctive characters and become illustrations of the themes instead. Their solemnity and the way they internalize their reactions keep Annihilation to be a sort of conventional horror story, where overt terror is usually at the heart of the story. Instead, the reduced performance contributes to the feeling that this film is above all a cold intellectual exercise. It’s not about gaudy, colorful forms of self-destruction, but about the subconscious urge to take control of the slow march to the grave by making choices that make it move faster.

Paramount Pictures

Despite the few films it reflects and refracts, Annihilation almost feels unique in this regard. His thrills are mostly thoughtful and analytical. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as viewers are willing to open their minds and engage their brains. To a genre that is supposed to carefully consider the possibilities of the future, science fiction too often seems as shrewd and insane a genre as any other. Annihilation fights this trend and leaves its audience with a lot to think about.


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