Annihilation continues in a similar vein of twisted, mind-blowing sci-fi to director Alex Garland’s debut, Ex Machina (2014). He started out writing scripts for Danny Boyle, including 28 Days Later… (2002) and Sunshine (2007). Garland’s first two projects behind the camera measure up impressively to Boyle’s work.
Natalie Portman is on top form as Lena, a military veteran turned biologist. She specialises in cancer cells, how they multiply and overcome a host. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is a soldier who suddenly reappears after a year missing in action. Kane is mysteriously ill however, and when Government agents intervene to quarantine him, Lena sets out to discover the truth of his secretive mission.
An alien force has arrived from beyond our atmosphere, creating a translucent wall, dubbed a ‘shimmer’. It’s boundaries are steadily growing, threatening to engulf the earth. Teams of soldiers and scientists have entered ‘Area X’ beyond the wall, but none have returned. Except Kane.
Lena joins the next team to go, desperate to save her husband by finding out what happened to him. Each expedition member has their own personal sadness that motivates them to volunteer for the potentially suicidal mission, but the film doesn’t give enough time to get to know them before the action starts. The script suggests that they represent three different ways to handle a crisis (such as cancer): learn from it, fight it, or succumb.
They find a beautiful, weird environment, and the genre gradually shifts from sci-fi to horror. The shimmer has caused animals in the zone to mutate into such grotesque, terrifying forms they (almost) make Alien (1979) look tame. There are brilliantly tense scenes, but Garland indulges in some unnecessarily over-the-top gore.
The story works on both visceral and cerebral levels, vividly depicting the paradox that is the miracle of life versus the self-destructiveness of nature. In a flashback scene Lena tells Kane that the ageing process isn’t natural, but a mistake in our DNA. In the Christian context of a fallen world, where death is an unnatural curse on God’s ‘very good’ creation, her point rings loud and true.
The climax is thrilling and bizarre, with dialogue-free sequences of dazzling visual effects, abstract music and even a kind of interpretive dance. There is a symmetry to the themes and imagery that bookend the film, leaving your mind with plenty to chew on as the credits roll.
It’s a shame Annihilation is only available from streaming service Netflix. It was obviously made for the cinema, with intricate visuals and expansive compositions. Crucial details are almost lost on a smaller screen. It’s worth catching on the biggest one you can.
★★★★☆ Strange and compelling. Not for the faint-hearted.