Much has been made of Paramount’s decision to dump Alex Garland’s second feature Annihilation on Netflix, denying the filmmaker’s fellow countrymen the chance to see the film on UK soil. It’s a depressing but understandable business decision given Paramount’s recent one-two of pricy auteur-driven flops, with mother! and Downsizing. But where mother! was unapologetically and aggressively esoteric, and Downsizing was shrouded in the tone-deaf comments of its smug star-man Matt Damon, Annihilation gives us an audacious, thrilling sci-fi parable that asks us to ponder the fragility of our design and the endless possibility beyond that, whilst boasting an impressive all-female cast, and a filmmaker at the top of his game.
For all the talk of the impenetrable intellectualism that dogs Annihilation, 90% of it is decidedly gasp-inducing and bottom-clenching in ways that will be very familiar and very enjoyable to even mainstream audiences. Garland litters the film with visceral, expertly-executed set pieces throughout, with grotesquely gorgeous production design and an unnervingly psychedelic atmosphere to boot – both of which are fiercely original and endlessly fascinating.
A novelist turned filmmaker, Garland is adept at conjuring deep-seated fear from the off and turning the dial as we go. The very first frame: a disheveled Natalie Portman in cold, clinical laboratory surroundings – the camera above and at a distance, as if scared of her, as she barely recounts a mission into ‘The Shimmer’, of which she is the only surviving member.
We learn through a fractured timeline that Portman, playing former soldier turned cellular biologist Lena, is mourning the unexplained loss of her special forces husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who, like his partner, was the only returning member of an expedition into an ever-expanding anomaly known as ‘The Shimmer’. He shuffles randomly home one day, Lena’s elation quickly morphing to desperation as the specter of her husband sits bemusedly at the table, before falling drastically ill, and having his ambulance intercepted by the US government.
The Shimmer is a ravishing achievement of design and execution – a haunting bubble identifiable by the oil-on-water kaleidoscope that drools down its perimeter – a perversely inviting spectacle and a very different way of presenting the wiping out of earth as we know it. Which seems to be done very deliberately.
Equally thrilling is the film’s confidence in it’s all female makeup of highly intelligent, highly troubled scientist squadron. A brooding, reserved Jennifer Jason-Leigh heads up the patrol as psychologist Dr. Ventress, with Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny rounding up the team as a physicist, paramedic and anthropologist respectively. One can’t help but wonder had that team been made up of Tom Hardy, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston then Paramount may not have been so quick to quake in their boots and offload to Netflix. The film never draws attention to or feels the need to explain the all-female team, and neither should it. Sure, they have guns and military know-how, but it’s refreshing to see an expedition into the unknown borne primarily of exploration and understanding rather than to capture or kill.
Early discussions and frames point to the film’s theme of self-destruction and the motifs of mutation and refraction. In a flashback Lena tells Kane that death is merely the result of a flaw in our genetic design, Dr. Ventress asking ‘isn’t self-destruction coded into each one of our cells?’. An early frame of Lena’s hand stroking that of what may or may not be her husband, shot through a glass of water. The touching flesh is refracted through the glass; an entirely new shape mutates and morphs through the refraction. It’s a shot laced with quiet dread that serves as a visual representation of the threat – or the possibilities – of The Shimmer.
Garland ratchets up proceedings as soon as we go down the hallucinatory rabbit hole. The team emerge from their tents panic stricken, unaware of how they got there or how long it’s been. We share the confusion and exasperation of the team as we, like them, can no longer trust ourselves. It’s a shame then that Garland chooses not to expand on or develop this psychological punishment that being in The Shimmer exacts on the team. Likewise, when Lena reaches the epicentre and we learn from one of the characters that their ‘flesh moves like liquid’, Garland chooses not to place the viewer in this visual hell-storm. It just feels like an experiential opportunity missed. Seeing it is much more affecting than hearing it.
What he does serve up is a roster of wildly mutated beings, the likes of which I won’t spoil here. The Shimmer is scary but gorgeous. Varying species of plants sprout from the same stem, enveloping the landscape in a beautiful mould. A corpse from the last ill-fated expedition is found with an eruption of vine like fungus curling out of him and up the walls in a display of pure, beautiful ecological force. Garland his team of production designers and VFX artists conjure an entrancing landscape that seems beyond the comprehension of the human mind.
It’s the final third that scared Paramount away and will likely divide audiences, but one that Garland and producer Scott Rudin gladly fought for, made all the more impressive by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s glitchy, pulsating soundtrack. Annihilation goes all out with its cosmic, outlandish finale that will leave you breathless and furiously researching what it all means. Contemplative, ambiguous, beguiling. Garland dares to punctuate the film with a threat that ‘wants nothing’, forcing us to recast the villain and question humanities deep, destructive impulses. There’s plenty of theories out there, the joy is in going and finding yours. Annihilation may be talked about as a modern sci-fi classic years from now. Paramount have given Netflix a gift.