Creating unpredictable cinema is a tricky, risky prospect. One false move and the filmmaker’s vision can turn from a journey the audience is eager to see unfold, to one where they don’t care to go any further. Luckily for writer-director Alex Garland, ANNIHILATION turns out to be the former. His riveting interpretation of author James VanderMeer’s sci-fi-horror novel is a consciousness-altering trip that will alter audiences on a cellular and molecular level. Though it’s impossible to quantify, the picture hits the sweet spot of top notch surreal sci-fi, gory psychological thriller, and unsentimental, highly feminist, haunting character-driven drama.
The plot is fairly straight-forward before it dives head-first into the heady beyond. Biology professor Lena (Natalie Portman) is unwittingly entangled in a top secret government operation after her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) comes home from his military detail a changed man. As he lies clinging to life, she’s tasked with going into the same dangerous ground – an iridescent, bubble eclipsing an area of park land, nicknamed the “Shimmer” – to discover what harmed him and what could threaten humanity. She’s joined by volunteers in various fields of expertise – team leader/ psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), anthropologist Cass Shepard (Tuva Novotny) and physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson).
Much like a page-turning book, Garland breaks up his film into a few chapters with title cards, dividing the narrative though never fracturing its building momentum. He flashes forward and back, not only from Lena’s post-mission inquisition with Lomax (Benedict Wong), but also to her memories of past joys and indiscretions – perhaps to echo themes about viewing time as non-linear, and the Möbius–strip-like cycle of life, death and renewal. This is also reflected in the small detail of the infinity-shaped ouroboros tattoo that jumps from Anya’s arm to Lena’s. Brilliantly this technique is never used to confuse. It’s connective without being confounding. Best of all, metaphors and symbolism never overwhelm. They augment the narrative.
Character discoveries are handled efficiently. Garland and VanderMeer have written fully capable, dynamic female characters. Their reveals aren’t jarring, mainly because the fluidly changing tones never allow them to be, but serve to haunt long after the credits roll. Their ferocity of spirit and strengths are tempered with a thoughtfulness and vulnerability. Through them, we feel the gravitas of death, despair, anguish and sacrifice – which permeate the atmosphere of the picture without brutalizing the characters. Concepts like self-abnegation, suicide versus self-destruction, conscientiously objecting, and self-immolation are floated. It’s a lot to chew on, and a second viewing might be a requirement.
Garland’s ability to juxtapose horror and beauty, not just narratively, but aesthetically is rather astounding. The majority of the film is shot with a soft, fuzzy, light gray tone. He and cinematographer Rob Hardy illustrate that the characters’ perceptions are being bent through a prism, just like the effused rainbow-haloed light filtered through the Shimmer. Only Lena’s memories from the outside remain in sharper focus. The static close-up of her holding her husband’s hands, shot through a water glass on the table, also plays with the idea of refraction. They also don’t shy away from utilizing gorgeous, saturated colors in the most horrific of circumstances the ladies witness – like the flower mutations that explode from a gutted soldier splayed on a swimming pool wall, or the flower growth silhouettes in the abandoned town. While it borrows a few production design cues from H.R. Giger, Garland, along with production designer Mark Digby, make these inspirations look and feel refreshed. You can’t peel your eyes away from the screen for a second or you’ll miss something spectacular.
Similar to the transfixing visual effects, the soundscape also plays a large part in the spectacle. Sound design is crucial as Glenn Fremantle, Ben Barker and the rest of the team infuse the Shimmer with a completely disquieting, alarming quality even in its stillness. The way the mutated bear growls is a sonic meld with a woman’s blood-curdling scream. You feel the weight of its stomp in your chest as it sniffs around and stalks its prey. Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s synth compositions also serve to unnerve, flexing their muscles in the utterly bananas, entrancing third act.
There are some nitpicks. Despite cleverly twisting the horror movie trope of malfunctioning communication devices, Garland doesn’t skirt other stupidity with his characters. It’s a head-scratcher that they would sleep safely in the lookout station high above the ground, yet send one person to keep watch in an open shack down below. Why not keep watch from the perch?
That said, whatever small maladies it suffers are greatly outweighed by its inventiveness, unpredictability, and profundity.
ANNIHILATION opens on February 23.