A Film from the Present - Issue 2 - ANNIHILATION
Written and Directed by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer
Reviewed by Brittany Alyse
“That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.”
When you think of a sci-fi expedition film, what do you expect to see? Is it the all male cast with maybe one female? A straight and narrow storyline that sticks to the map and gives you a few surprises and maybe a concrete ending? Well, if that’s true for you, then ANNIHILATION literally annihilates all of your pre-existing expectations. For one, there are maybe two males that have prominent speaking roles in this film. Otherwise? The film is lead by an all female cast, and they take us off the map and on a daring and highly experimental quest that will leave you breathless.
All of the actors knock it out of the park. They put you through the ringer emotionally and make the madness feel real. Natalie Portman shines as Lena, and once again proves that she has been and always will be that bitch, because she nailed it. There’s a scene in the third act that is so bizarre and intense, and Natalie does some of the most impressive body work I’ve ever seen, choreographed by the incomparable Bobbi Jene Smith. Gina Rodriguez kicks ass as Anya. Her tough-as-nails character delivers some of the film’s best lines, laughs and surprises. We need Gina in more action and drama films from now on, please. Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr. Ventress has a manner about her that is so damn fascinating, and has one of the most memorable and downright chilling scenes I’ve ever witnessed on film. Oscar Isaac as Kane is an enigma, a broken soldier who decides to risk it all on a secret mission for reasons mysterious to his wife, Lena. Oscar, who filmed his scenes for this film at the same time he was filming STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI, gives his all and is so impressive. Tuva Novotny plays Cass, a grieving mother who gives us some very interesting clues as to why the rest of the women have all ended up in the positions they are in.
Tessa Thompson’s character Josie took my heart, though. Josie is a quiet woman who mostly keeps to herself and is in over her head when she enters the Shimmer. We find out through Cass that Josie is a person battling depression, and the scars on her arms are proof of the war with herself. The story handles Josie with the utmost care and really depicts her depression with such grace. Her presence is powerful and ethereal, and it was truly rewarding to see her timid, scared demeanor transform into this state of blissful peace.
I’m not going to do anyone the disservice of describing all the film’s events because, on one hand, it’s an experience you should definitely see at the cinema (or, if you’re an international reader: on Netflix) and on the other, it would be extremely difficult to even try to break down what I witnessed. This film is a labyrinth - an otherworldly and ambitious tale that does not fail to unnerve you throughout.
Let’s try to cover the basics, shall we?
The film begins with Lena and Kane, a married couple who met while they were both in the military. When Kane takes up a secret mission and disappears, Lena is forced to move on in a world without him. Twelve months later he mysteriously returns, and immediately falls gravely ill. Kane, now in some sort of coma, is on the brink of death. The enigmatic Dr. Ventress, who is caring for Kane, recruits Lena to see if she may have any answers. She doesn’t, but is equally as eager to find out the truth about what has happened to her husband.
The cause of Kane’s condition is caused from his time in the secret mission, inside a place dubbed The Shimmer: a large, paranormal bubble that resembles a parking lot oil spill that has encapsulated a part of Florida. Inside The Shimmer is a world of unknown and impossible biological happenings. Except for Kane, no one who enters The Shimmer has ever returned. Dr. Ventress and her team (Anya, Josie and Cass) have every intention of discovering what truly lies within The Shimmer. This is why Lena nominates herself to join the all-female team as they step into the void.
The Shimmer is a beautiful facade. A world we may know, enhanced in so many ways to make it look like a psychedelic enchanted forest. Beautiful flower species have bloomed and unexplainable rainbow organisms grow on trees and abandoned buildings. A colorful, picturesque world, sure, but underneath all that mystical allure is true terror.
The deeper these women journey into The Shimmer, the more paralyzing the horror gets. It unfolds in such a unique way, because this story is built like an action movie, but it defies that mold and relies on its quiet emotion and its nail-biting thriller moments. There are many creatures the women encounter, none more harrowing than the giant skull-faced bear that emits a scream of the human they previously have killed instead of a roar. It is the most frightening sound in the entire world -- effective for the bear and the fate of a few characters, sure, but terrifying nonetheless.
By the end of the haunting and insane third act, I knew this film was something else entirely. Lena is thrown into the final showdown and meets an entity that I will not even attempt to describe. What happens next is a scene I will never be able to get out of my head because it is the epitome of nightmare fuel. Almost literally the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I watch a lot of horror and genre films. I love them. I can watch Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger slice and dice all day long and not be scared, but this thing scared me stiff. Like I said before, the scene I am hinting at has Natalie Portman doing some insane body choreography that will perplex me for a lifetime. I am forever impressed and eternally scarred.
ANNIHILATION is a feat of monumental proportions. It is something so unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It’s an arthouse film that got a wide studio release in cinemas, and, hello, THAT is something to celebrate. Alex Garland didn't need to prove anything to us after EX MACHINA, but if people weren't aware of his tremendous talent before, they certainly will be after seeing ANNIHILATION. The amount of care Alex put into the concept, the characters and this alien-like world is beyond me. I mean, the world-building itself still has my mind buzzing. The film as a whole is this feverish, cerebral mind-bender. I’m afraid I’ll need to see it multiple times, because I still cannot even begin to unravel the complexity and sheer terror this story holds.
But goddamn, it’s good.