Release date: 12th March 2018/Watch the trailer here
About thirty-five minutes into Annihilation’s run time, there’s an exchange of dialogue between two characters that manages to encapsulate the entire film fairly succinctly: ‘It was dreamlike.’ ‘Nightmarish?’ ‘Not always. Sometimes it was beautiful.’
From Ex Machina writer and director Alex Garland and based on the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer – the first book in the bestselling Southern Reach trilogy – Annihilation tells the story of Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and former soldier who finds herself at the government-run ‘Area X’ after the mysterious return of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who went missing on a mission almost a year ago and has since been presumed dead. At Area X, Lena discovers the presence of an anomaly known as ‘the shimmer’, an electromagnetic field that has been spreading across the southern coast for three years. Despite knowing that military teams have been regularly venturing into the shimmer with no one ever returning, Lena joins a team consisting of a psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a paramedic, Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and a geologist, Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), on a research mission into the shimmer.
From technology failing to forgetting extensive periods of time and attacks by strange, mutated animals, things grow weirder and weirder for the team from the moment they enter the shimmer. Although certain story beats can’t help but feel familiar for the first half of the film, such a surreal setting allows Annihilation to become something truly original through a combination of cinematography, production design and visual effects. Annihilation contains instances of genuine horror, but this is juxtaposed with a beautiful, dreamlike quality that Garland maintains throughout the film.
As for the more nightmarish elements of the film, they vary from mildly unsettling, to gruesomely gory, to downright horrifying – but even these moments are presented with creativity and ingenuity. While the plot is slow-paced, it builds suspense with a constant, unrelenting atmosphere of dread and foreboding; occasionally breaking this tension with scares that range from disconcerting body horror to a truly disturbing bear attack, made all the more nightmare-inducing by its incredibly inventive use of sound design.
Annihilation is, however, first and foremost a science fiction film, and Garland aims high. The true horror of it lies not with the blood and guts and shock factor but with the lasting implications, the kind that linger for long afterwards and leave you pondering some of life’s bigger and more meaningful questions. The best sci-fi films – Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, Garland’s own Ex Machina – are the ones that can spawn endless discussion, and Annihilation achieves this through both its ambiguous nature and a refreshing level of respect for the intelligence of its audience.
With Annihilation, Garland may not always reach the heights of his own ambitions, but he should be applauded for being daring enough to try. He has crafted a film that is more than just impressive visuals and a gripping mystery – it’s a film that dazzles, haunts and fascinates, and – when done well – that has the potential to be far more rewarding than a film with a clear, decisive conclusion.