Whether due to the supposedly confused responses from test audiences, studio disagreements or a stab at following the example set by The Cloverfield Paradox in attaining a wider viewership at the cost of the big screen experience, Alex Garland brings his latest science fiction movie to the small screen. Annihilation, the story about a team of biologists who enter a dangerous biozone and face the newly evolving horrors found within.
Having been impressed with Garland’s previous film, Ex Machina, which adeptly dove into themes of humanity, AI, and the thin line between the two, it was interesting going into this film knowing next to nothing about it. And that may be the best way to approach Annihilation. It’s a film which many audience members will come away feeling different and is far from a conventionally satisfying science fiction adventure film.
The novel on which the film is based on definitely takes inspiration from science fiction classics such as Solaris and Roadside Picnic. Like those works, the book, and subsequently this film, explores how a truly alien environment physically and psychologically tests the main characters in their attempts to understand it, while it learns to understand them. This leads to a number of striking visuals. The entire film has a distinct visual flair, complemented by some strong creature effects as the characters have to face an alien object that crashes into the earth; they affect the surrounding area, right down to animal and human DNA. The CGI is solid and the production design is faultless but what really stands out is the body horror. Despite being advertised as sci-fi adventure, this film has moments of downright horror with the way the environment affects people and animals alike, and it makes for some truly chilling visuals. From beginning to end there is a sense of unease in this environment, but also fascination as the characters move further into this biozone.
[Annihilation] is a film which many audience members will come away with feeling differently about, and is far from a conventionally satisfying science fiction adventure film
The characters themselves are one of the film’s unfortunate shortfalls. On the basis of performances, all five women do well. Natalie Portman makes for an effective lead, Gina Rodriguez has some particularly great stand-out moments as the hostile world around her closes in, and both Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny work well as the more sympathetic side of the team. Jennifer Jason Leigh at first appears to serve a performance veering from uncaring to bored, but as the film goes on the performance begins to make more sense when aligned with her motivations. Oscar Isaac is… pretty spaced out enough for much of his screen time.
While the performances are great, all of the characters are underexplored and suffer from a lack of individual screen-time. We understand their backstories and motivations, all of which are pretty dark and have room for drama, but because they’re not talked about, shown enough or engaged with. We only really get to scrape the surface of who they are. It also doesn’t help that the film has a framing device that pretty much confirms the fates of everyone involved and gives away key information just before it happens. The film may have succeeded more if it had spent more time getting to know the characters, so the audience could emotionally invest in them.
This film explores how a truly alien environment physically and psychologically tests the main characters in their attempts to understand it, while it learns to understand them
Despite having a cast mostly made up of scientists, the science of Annihilation is also on the weak side. This isn’t Interstellar, but the film really isn’t about the science or providing answers. Like the works that inspired this film, finding answers to what caused the incident aren’t the concern. Instead, it’s about looking into the characters and humanity, which suffer from being sketched out but at the same time are redeemed by the rest of the film. The pacing is solid, with a constant sense of both wonder and unease within the environment. The horror is gripping and unsettling. The soundtrack frequently uses acoustic instruments, but it’s never distracting or jarring. By the end of it, audiences will have many questions and the film doesn’t provide all the answers; it allows the viewer room to think and ponder.
Annihilation is a film which one has to watch carefully to understand, and experience to fathom. It’s best to experience without knowing necessarily what they are going to get. It’s not an optimistic film in its view, but it is a beautiful film to look at and a journey which, while it’s characters are underdeveloped, is worth taking with a cast this good.