ANNIHILATION, the latest film from Alex Garland (Ex Machina, 28 Days Later), is a terrifying, brutal, and visually astounding thriller that will leave viewers in awe long after the credits have ended. The film stars Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok), Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”), Tuva Novotny (Eat Pray Love), and Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina).
ANNIHILATION, which is based off the best-selling “Southern Reach Trilogy" by Jeff VanderMeer, centers around Lena (Portman), a biologist whose husband (Isaac) has returned after disappearing for 12 months during a secret expedition. Once back, he falls gravely ill, leaving Lena questioning what exactly happened during his time away. Having no other choice, she decides to volunteer herself and venture into an environmental disaster zone where she believed her husband had gone, otherwise known as the “Shimmer”. However, what awaits her and the team is unlike anything they could have ever expected.
Having been familiar with Garland’s work in both 28 Days Later and Ex Machina, I had high expectations for his newest film. With that said, I was not expecting to be filled with so many emotions which ranged from sadness to terror to absolute awe. I'm going to stay away from a lot of the pain plot points because ANNIHILATION is so much more than what the trailers showcase (also I don't want to reveal any spoilers). Actually, if you are reading this review, I urge you to not watch the trailers at all, as they don’t give an accurate representation of what this film truly is. Our initial focus is on this “Shimmer” that seems to be spreading at a somewhat rapid pace. No one knows how it was created, no one knows why it was created, and until Lena’s husband returned, no had ever come back. The “Shimmer” is what follows us through the whole film, whether it be through beautiful camera work or the oppressing heaviness that affects the crew during their experience. It’s important to remember that the “Shimmer” represents more than a mysterious phenomenon. It has a much deeper meaning, and I think because of that, casual moviegoers are going to be disappointed with the end result.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved this movie. But just like how Mother! shocked and angered so many people, ANNIHILATION is set up to do the same just in a different way. This isn’t a horror film focused on supernatural or demonic elements. This is a story that encompasses pain and loss. It focuses on those who are broken and hopeless. It’s a powerful statement to bring to the forefront especially when the backdrop is a juxtaposition of immense beauty and death. As we learn more about our five leads, Lena, Dr. Ventress (Leigh), Josie Radek (Thompson), Anya Thorensen (Rodriguez), and Cass Sheppard (Novotny), we find out why they chose to volunteer for this “suicide mission” and the impact that the "Shimmer" has on them the closer they get to it's source.
Speaking of our leads, we need to talk about the acting. What makes this movie so engaging is the five actresses that the film surrounds. Each one has a unique trait which makes it easy for those of us in the audience to relate to at least one, if not all of them. I found myself gravitating more towards Josie Radek with a dash of Anya Thorensen and by seeing myself in them it brought about a sadness I hadn’t felt in a long time. These are characters that have experienced immense pain and though they are scientists, they still are able to showcase emotions which makes it all the more difficult to watch as they morph and mutate through the 2 hour runtime. As much as I loved each of these characters, I have to point out how incredible Jennifer Jason Leigh was. Her talent and her dedication to her craft is immense and she stood out not only because of her storyline but because of the presence she brings to the table.
What really set my creative mind on fire though was the art direction and attention to detail. Even if you don’t like this film, you will be hard pressed to not admit the beauty that is conveyed on screen. The “Shimmer” is a beautiful place that houses some horrifying secrets and the art design is done so splendidly that even the most grotesque parts of the film still have an air of stunning artistry. The cinematography by Rob Hardy is brilliant as well as the immense amount of bright colors and creature designs throughout the entire film. It was truly breathtaking and I applaud director Alex Garland and his team for making such an exquisite film. Along with the art direction, I absolutely fell in love with the score from composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury who were also responsible for the music in Alex Garland's previous film, Ex Machina.
ANNIHILATION is a heavy film. There are moments of pure terror, paranoia, and gore that horror fans will love. There are also moments of deep meaning and symbolism for those who want a film that carries more than just a superficial weight. As I thought more about ANNIHILATION last night, I realized that the film, to me, really showcases how cancerous a person, an experience, a decision can be. Just like with the medical diagnoses, a mistake or a misstep can snowball and spread with no end in sight. It can eat away at your loved ones just as it does to you and can carry heavy consequences. For me, that’s what I took away from the film, but I have a feeling there are going to be quite a few different interpretations. In the end though, ANNIHILATION does have a sliver of hope, of rebirth, of making things right, and I think that’s something that we should all hold near and dear.
Overall, ANNIHILATION is a tour-de-force of a film. Director Alex Garland once again proves how talented he is in crafting a story to life. It also pleased me greatly to see five diverse women portrayed as intellectual scientists doing whatever it takes to try and save the world. There is no male hero, there is no damsel in distress, and quite honestly, it’s a breath of fresh air to continuously see strong and determined women (whether in real life or fictional) saving the world. Will you like ANNIHILATION? I can’t answer that, but if you are willing to put aside preconceived notions that this is strictly a horror/sci-fi film and are willing to go in for an experience unlike anything else you’ve seen this year, I think you walk away pleasantly surprised with the outcome.
ANNIHILATION arrives in theaters February 23rd from Paramount Pictures