Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina (2014), was super impressive and left me slightly speechless in contemplation afterward. There were amazing visuals and great performances from the rather small cast. Everything he did in Ex Machina was elevated with his newest film, Annihilation (2018) – including my speechlessness and need of contemplation. The story is interesting and complicated, the technical aspects are outstanding, and the plot structure is unique and effective.
Annihilation is an example of what makes cinema great
Garland adapted the screenplay from a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, which I’ve not read so I can’t make any comparisons. Whether the book uses the narrative structure that the film does definitely affect some of the following criticism, however, Annihilation’s plot structure is extremely unique and definitely nonlinear. The film opens with Lena (Natalie Portman) being interrogated by Lomax (Benedict Wong) in a Hazmat suit after she’d already entered the area that will be later called “the Shimmer”. This framing device allows for the story to jump around quite a bit, including to her time before her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) left for his last mission, to her time immediately before the Shimmer, and to her time within the Shimmer. Of course, Garland doesn’t go in the logical order that was just laid out but goes to each of those times as needed to develop this intricate story.
Portman continues to impress with her talents. She believably pulls off every emotion she is required to, and in this film, it’s basically everything. Her character is tough, terrified, spiteful, loving, angry, vulnerable, happy, and everything in between. Garland asks a lot from his star, and she delivers in every scene. Her male co-stars have minimal screen time and aren’t asked to do quite as much, but both perform admirably. However, her female co-stars get more to do and deliver with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, and Tessa Thompson filling out the five-woman expedition into the Shimmer. They all have to give a lot for the film to work, and they succeed.
Annihilation isn’t a film that will likely appeal to a mass audience. Garland isn’t afraid to take his time with the story he is developing. There are moments of true terror on screen juxtaposed with moments of sheer beauty. The themes and messages the film grapples with are challenging, and could definitely make some audience members squirm more than the characters did during a horrific scene involving a mutated woodland creature. It’s wonderful science fiction approached with a writer/director who truly seems at home in the genre.
Writing this review less than twelve hours after watching it has many difficulties. I know I haven’t fully processed everything I witnessed with my thirteen-year-old daughter by my side. I’m definitely not sure if she’s even begun to come to grips with the film. We were halfway to our vehicle before either spoke about the film as our brains reeled to make sense of all the events the film placed before us. On the long car ride home, prompted by Annihilation being pulled from several theaters likely fearing an audience flop, our appreciation of the film only grew. Annihilation earns the Must See rating, but, be warned – it’s not for everyone.