I have to give Paramount Pictures credit for taking risks in the past year or so on movies which defy what is considered these days to be mainstream entertainment. Last year, they released Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!,” a film which could in no way be mistaken for a comic book movie. Despite it earning a rare Cinemascore grade of an F, Paramount stood behind Aronofsky and his film defiantly, saying they were proud of the work he did. Keep in mind, the studio made this clear even after “mother!” suffered a weak opening at the box office, especially when compared to other movies starring Jennifer Lawrence.
Now in 2018, Paramount has released “Annihilation,” a science-fiction horror film which not only defies what many expect from Hollywood at the moment, but also proves impossibly hard to fit into any specific genre. This has led many to accuse Paramount of not giving the movie the proper promotion it deserved, but we will address this issue at another time. Whatever expectations you have for this cinematic experience, it would be best to leave them at the door as “Annihilation” deals with themes and situations other filmmakers have explored in the past, but this time they are handled in a way which feels truly fresh and not the least bit routine.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist and former U.S. Army soldier who, as the movie starts, is in a depressed state as her husband, Army soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac), has been missing for a year, and many presume he has been killed in action. But suddenly, Kane reappears to Lena’s delight, but he resembles one of the pod people from Phillip Kaufman’s remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as he seems devoid of any emotion and cannot remember where he was. Before Lena can get a satisfactory answer regarding his whereabouts, Kane becomes very sick and is transported via ambulance to the hospital. As you can expect, military officials stop the ambulance, and it becomes clear Lena and Kane have stumbled across something those in power would prefer to keep under a heavy veil of secrecy.
“Annihilation” puts us right into Lena’s shoes as she desperately tries to understand the situation she has been thrust into. Finding herself at the United States’ government facility known as Area X, a name which implies a location always closed off to the general public, Lena is greeted by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist who finally gives her some answers and introduces her to an area known as “the shimmer.” We see a meteor hit a lighthouse, and from there an electromagnetic field has developed and continues to spread at a rate to where it will eventually absorb everything in its path. Soldiers have been sent into “the shimmer” to better understand this phenomenon, but Kane is the only one who has come back from it alive.
Dr. Ventress ends up recruiting Lena and two other women to join her on the latest mission to enter “the shimmer,” a mission they have every reason to believe is a suicidal one. This is where “Annihilation” becomes particularly unique as these characters are not trying to be heroic but are instead dealing with their own self-destructive tendencies. Indeed, self-destruction is a big theme as these four women are revealed to be individuals deeply wounded by life in one way or another to where they feel as though there’s nothing much left to care about or live for. But as they get deeper into “the shimmer,” their survival instincts become awakened almost immediately.
“Annihilation” was written for the screen and directed by Alex Garland who started out as a novelist with his book “The Beach” which was made into a movie by Danny Boyle and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Since then, he has graduated to writing screenplays for “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go” and “Dredd.” In 2015, he made his directorial debut with “Ex Machina,” a brilliant science fiction thriller which dealt with the subject of artificial intelligence in a way which felt familiar and yet very fresh. Even if the story reminded me of “Frankenstein” in a way, the approach Garland took with the material and the characters felt invigorating and wonderfully unique.
Garland has brought this same kind of energy and enthusiasm to “Annihilation” as it follows a group of people caught in a situation much like the one in John Carpenter’s “The Thing” to where they are dealing with an antagonist who is not quite visible, and this leads them to become increasingly paranoid about one another. Garland does an excellent job of keeping the audience off-balance as he takes us through the story in a non-linear fashion. When Lena awakes in a tent inside “the shimmer,” she admits she has no idea how she got there or of what she experienced in the past few hours. Indeed, we end up feeling as lost as her as we are desperate to better understand the situation everyone has been sucked into, and Garland holds our attention throughout as a result.
Throughout, Garland gives us much to think about such as the differences between suicide and self-destruction as well as the importance and inherent danger of discovery. While watching “Annihilation,” I was reminded of a scene in “Jurassic Park” between John Hammond and Ian Malcolm. Hammond doesn’t understand why anyone would stand in the way of discovery, but Malcolm leaves him with this to chew on:
“What’s so great about discovery? It’s a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.”
But while Garland has crafted “Annihilation” as the thinking person’s sci-fi movie, it is not at all lacking in the thrill department. Certain scenes have a visceral feel to where I jumped out of my seat for the first time in ages. On a visual level, it has a look which is as beautiful as it is haunting, and I am having a hard time comparing it to other movies I have seen recently. On top of this, “Annihilation” features a very unique sonic landscape courtesy of composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, both of whom combine an earthly sound with an electronic one as they work to separate the real world these characters have left behind and the alien realm they have dared themselves to enter.
Natalie Portman has a tricky role to play here. As Lena, she has to be vulnerable but also exhibit a reserve of strength deeply embedded in a character who has served her time in the military. That Portman manages to pull this off is not the least bit surprising, and she gives us a fully formed character whose experience and pain aid her in the movie’s spellbinding climax. Many still can’t shake the squeaky-clean image they have of Portman, but she has been around long enough to remind audiences of the amazing depth and range she has as an actress.
It’s great to see Jennifer Jason Leigh here as well, let alone in any movie she appears in. As Dr. Ventress, she creates a truly enigmatic character who keeps her emotion in check to where you constantly wonder what is going on in her head. Clearly, this doctor has more interests than in just exploring “the shimmer,” and Leigh keeps you guessing what they are all the way to the end.
I also have to give credit to Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny for creating such memorable characters out of those which, in any other movie, could have been of the easily disposable variety. Some characters exist solely to further the actions of the lead protagonist or serve as mere fodder for an ever so lethal antagonist, but these actresses make theirs stand out in a way they would not have otherwise, and their final onscreen moments are hard to shake once you have witnessed them.
And when it comes to Oscar Isaac, you can always count on him to give an infinitely charismatic performance even in a role where the character looks to have been drained of all emotion. Telling you more about his character of Kane would be detrimental to your viewing experience, but once you watch him here, you will agree he has created a fascinating portrait of a man who once knew his place in the world, but who now is forever lost in it.
It has now been a few days since I have watched “Annihilation,” and I still find myself thinking about the movie quite intensely. Even if its pace lags a little more than it should, the questions it left me with remain endlessly fascinating. When we see Lena reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” is that a hint of some kind? What led Garland to include the Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Hopelessly Hoping” here? And more importantly, is the movie’s ending a hopeful one, or is it meant to be relentlessly bleak? Garland is not out to give us easy answers, but my hope is you will be open to the unusual experience this movie has to offer. Cinemascore may have given it an average grade of a C, but please remember this is the same research group which gave “America: Imagine the World Without Her” an A+.
Trust me, check this one out, and be sure to come into it with an open mind.
* * * ½ out of * * * *