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Released: March 12, 2018 (Netflix)
Length: 115 Minutes
Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac and Benedict Wong
Grounded science fiction can be classed as a sub-genre that takes place in a world not too dissimilar to our own while incorporating often frightful disasters or tricky situations into the mix. Coming off a major hit with directorial debut Ex Machina, Garland dives deeper into the sci-fi genre with a slower but equally engaging science fiction film.
Based on the book by Jeff Vandermeer and set in the near-future, Annihilation concerns the appearance of an unknown region called The Shimmer or Area X; it has engulfed the reaches of a US national park and will continue to grow until it envelops entire population centres. Previous expeditions have been launched inside in a bid to understand the biomass, but to no avail. A team of all-female scientists trained in direct combat is sent in for the first time and they begin to uncover the realm’s secrets. Five women make up this team, the most fleshed out of which being Natalie Portman’s Lena, who volunteers for the expedition after her husband grows ill after a previous venture. The story is told from both present and flashback viewpoints as the film charts both the expedition and Lena’s own tribulations at home. From the moment it begins, Annihilation marks itself as a very slow-paced and serious production, with a tantalising mystery slowly drawing the viewer in over its two-hour runtime. Using the perspectives of the science team is a very good choice, as we the audience gradually learn more about the Shimmer and its twisting geometries as they venture deeper in, enhancing the intricacies of the mystery. As they venture deeper in towards the source of the Shimmer, discoveries are made, and things become even more twisted, calling into question what the mutation is really undertaking. If you can stomach the reduced amount of action (which is used sparingly throughout the proceedings), the film succeeds beyond all doubts at immersion. The last act is almost exclusively visual storytelling with minimal dialogue and will no doubt prompt plenty of questions and interpretations.
Characters are fairly few and far between in Annihilation, with the team of scientists being placed at the centre of the proceedings with little to distract. Lena is especially well-portrayed by Portman as she captures both a serious side to being a former soldier and scientist while also hiding the more emotional aspects of her character’s struggle, particularly when it comes to her husband Kane (played by Oscar Isaac with suitably cryptic traits). The other members of the expedition team are admittedly underdeveloped with only a few sprinklings of backstory revealed about them, but the performances are nevertheless very well done, especially when tension sets in and divides the group. The entrance of more psychologically unstable breakdowns are undoubtedly the highlights of the film, walking the line between nuance and full-on madness as they journey towards the source of the phenomenon. There is enough time dedicated to bringing the group together and seeing them interact, allowing the side actors to overcome to relatively limited amount of material they have to work with. They each reflect the grim situation they find themselves in, creating an authentic portrayal of how a situation like Area X would be handled.
Annihilation is often visually spectacular, but this is a case where the special effects make the most of a limited setting. The Shimmer hangs over a national park filled with mutated forest growth and roamed by hostile creatures. There are plenty of visual cues to set it apart from the real world, including a strange glow hanging over the proceedings, mutated trees and visual effects on the various wildlife and fauna that really give off an other-worldly presence. The lack of music, combined with these visual effects, creates an unrelenting atmosphere that pulls you in just as the characters are entering the Shimmer themselves. There’s a significant amount of ambience throughout the film as it makes use of audio cues to clue the viewer in to its landscapes. A wide range of shots is used to both give off the wide-reach of Area X, before moving closer to create tinges of horror and rising tension. The highlight of the design work culminates in the final act as a bright, unrelenting fiery effect engulfs the last revelations thrown at the audience. While more minimalistic than other science fiction films, Annihilation should receive high commendations by making its seemingly basic world feel incredibly absorbing, provoking fascination within any audience who takes the plunge.
Annihilation is another excellent effort from Alex Garland, whose deliberately slow and contained approach to filmmaking has creating an intoxicating, atmospheric, and highly thought-provoking piece. Despite being moved to Netflix rather than getting a full release, you should give it your attention.
Rating: 4.5/5 Stars (Brilliant)