Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
The world doesn’t deserve directors like Alex Garland, a once lauded author (see “The Beach”) and now full time genre filmmaker. If his last film, the sci-fi zipper that was “Ex Machina,” had something to say about machines and the capabilities of technology than “Annihilation” has an environmental one that mirrors the likes of Darren Aronofsky's “mother!” except - Garland has all his marbles in the correct order, and he offers solid escapism that will likely divide audience members with it’s touch of gorgeous visuals. Always is it refreshing to leave a film and have your mind feel expanded rather than annoyed.
While Garland does take many liberties with the source material which inspired Paramount to shell out a hefty $50 million to budget this opus, however, poor test screenings deemed the studio to sell international rights to Netflix in order to cut losses. So the US, Canada and China are the only territories getting to see this on the big screen. We should feel so fortunate, because this movie demands to be seen on the biggest screen imaginable. It also doesn’t hurt that it has Natalie Portman in the driver's seat playing Lena: a biologist that teaches at John Hopkins university. It’s been just over a year since her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) went off on a military venture and has been presumed dead. That all shifts once Kane shows up in their house unannounced, but he’s clearly different and not the same man who left. Isaac is very robotic in these earlier scenes (for reasons that will eventually become clear later on). He starts to seize and go into shock, and before the ambulance can rush them to the hospital, government officials are whiffing all over them.
Lena awakens in her slumber to find Psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) asking specific questions about her husband's return. There’s a hidden agenda here but Lena can’t put her finger on it. Ventress than dutifully explains about their location, dubbed “Area X,” is on the brink of a global phenomenon. Somewhere on the coast of Florida, a lighthouse was struck with some other wordly plasm of sorts and has created an enigmatic bubble stretching over miles and miles of land. Eventually, if nothing is done, it will spread all over the Earth. They call it “The Shimmer” and everything that’s been done to study it’s origin have proved futile as countless expedition crews have been sent and never came back, except for Kane.
So the last line of defense is a group of smart scientists, EMTs and a biologist to venture into The Shimmer in hopes of finding more answers. Lena volunteers to go because she “owes” her husband answers to his condition. Once inside, hours turn into days, days turn into months. I know all of this because there’s a framing device that Garland implements throughout the whole movie as Lena is detailing her journey to Lomax (Benedict Wong). It’s the basic equivalent of Garland telling the audience “this will definitely go somewhere. Stick with me.” It’s also the most annoying aspect of the whole movie. Often in the middle of the action, it cuts back to this constant scene and, at times, it took me out of the movie. It also could spoil the fate of certain characters, but it was always safe to assume that not everyone was going to make it back alive.
But what Garland does best is staging some extremely intense white knuckle stunners. Including one with a mutated alligator and a larger than life bear that’s howl is the last thing it killed. He also presents very Kubrick like ideas and attempts to start a conversation here in the same way “2001” did so many years ago. There’s much left to ambiguity and that might cause a fuss (I had some random stranger ask me after the movie if I understood what just happened) so my answer to that is “Annihilation” will warrant much discussion. But it doesn’t neatly wrap up everything in a bow and you should know better than that with Garland in the directing chair.
Portman turns in a very tortured, soulful and honest performance. This movie’s wild themes are planted on her shoulders and she carries them with much admiration. The supporting cast of Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny all turn in exceptional, albeit, believable turns as a crew that wants the truth, but is also scared for what lies ahead. As I mentioned earlier there’s a showdown with a bear (one that’s been affected by The Shimmer) that will pin you to your seat and all these ladies convey it in the best way they could. There’s also much blood and guts and other potential “look away” moments throughout “Annihilation’s” runtime, but when it focus it sights on the tasks, Garland presents some truly profound topics that really kept my head buzzing.