annihilation review natalie portmanYear: 2018
Director(s): Alex Garland
Writer(s): Alex Garland, Jeff VanderMeer
Region of Origin: USA

Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 115 mins

Synopsis: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply. (Source)

The power of Alex Garland’s Annihilation is that it’s about the horror that lies beneath the surface. At a time when most films spoon-feed their intentions, Garland’s latest challenges us to search between the fibers of its enigma, and in turn, deep within our own preconceptions. In that sense, it’s an elusive work of art that offers boundless spectacle, yet doesn’t talk down to its audience. Somewhere within its existential frights, is a reflection of our most primal selves, the parts we’d rather dance around instead of address. This ballsy exploration of self and identity is staggering, culling from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name and somehow translating unfilmable prose into an artful counterpart that truly haunts. While this can’t and won’t be for everyone, it’s undoubtedly a rich piece of cinema that’ll consume our psyche with every mandatory, multiple viewing.

The story picks up after a phenomenon known as the Shimmer has secretly overtaken a part of the country. A shadowy agency named the Southern Reach has sent countless expeditions deep into Area X (the slowly expanding land overtaken by the Shimmer), but no one has returned… until now. A biologist named Lena (Natalie Portman) is shocked when her husband, a soldier, suddenly returns from a covert mission with no memory of the past. After his health takes a turn, she’s introduced to the Southern Reach, and demands to be part of an upcoming expedition into Area X. As Lena and a group of scientists travel deeper into Area X and towards the Shimmer’s possible origin, they begin to realize that nothing is what it seems, and nothing will ever be the same again.

Whereas Garland explored ideas of consciousness, free will and existence in Ex Machina, his latest is a continuation of these themes, albeit this time through apocalyptic, biological terror. We destroy to create. We die to live. This is fact both in concept and natural biology, and the backbone of what makes Area X so terrifying. Posing as an extraordinary expedition into glitched-out nature, the film ends up being an odyssey into our own self-destructive nature, and the cruel irony of this necessity in order to survive. The film tackles these abstract concepts through visceral poetry, which is tinged with paranoia and defiant weirdness as things progress. Even amidst an expanse of wilderness, Garland makes the entire thing feel like a reverberating chamber piece, turning a handful of characters against themselves and each other as their surroundings shift and narrative structure subverts. Still, at its core, this is a thrilling and oft-times grotesque look at our relationship with the world around us, death, and life itself, culminating in a psychedelic third act that transcends classification.

annihilation review natalie portman jennifer jason leigh tuva novotnyIt goes without saying that the small ensemble is without equal. As our entry into the story, Natalie Portman’s Lena is the its humanity. Most of the film’s ideas are portrayed through her, and without dialogue. Portman turns in some of her best work, bringing the abstract to life and making it feel relatable. Though Portman is the glue that holds it all together, Gina Rodriguez’s Anya, Tessa Thompson’s Josie, Tuva Novotny’s Cass and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Ventress round out the expedition team and hold their own. Each woman portrays both strength and frailty, dealing with Area X’s inexplicable nature, and their own fears through diverse manifestations. By and large, this group of women are incredible to watch, tethering us to reality despite heightened circumstance. Oscar Isaac is the icing on the cake as Lena’s afflicted husband, stealing a few pivotal moments.

In the best way, I don’t think that Annihilation is meant to be completely understood in a single viewing. Still, it isn’t completely out of reach if you’re willing to give yourself over to it. At the heart of it all, Garland’s film is a new classic, a thought provoking work of immense profundity and a look at the invisible forces that propel us toward an inevitable fate. Fans of Carpenter, Cronenberg and even Tarkovsky will find a lot to admire, but Garland has a voice of his own. Taking excellent source material and spinning it into something new, Garland’s visually ravishing trip into the unknown is a hypnotic abyss that we don’t want to stop staring deeper into.