Following Ex Machina (2014) – a film which delved into the idea of consciousness and identity, filtered through the prism of machine intelligence – there were high hopes for director Alex Garland’s latest, Annihilation.
Ditching robotics and artificial intelligence this time round, Garland takes viewers on a different journey as he again explores the id itself – the core elements of what drives and defines humanity, and whether it can be replicated or corrupted by an external, truly other force.
However, what worked so well as a driving plot force in Ex Machina just isn’t as successful in Garland’s treatment of the ‘unfilmable’ novel by Jeff VanderMeer – perhaps that’s why most of the planet will be watching this on Netflix, rather than at cinemas.
As I recently wrote, Garland is reportedly none too happy that Annihilation got sold by Paramount Pictures to Netflix (bar a cinema release in America and Canada), when it had been made for a standard cinema release.
Media mutterings suggest that Paramount, spooked by the film’s intellectual themes and hardcore sci-fi elements, were happy to sell it to Netflix, which is conspicuously trying to up its game and land bigger cinematic fish to fry (despite similarly landing a recent stinker, The Cloverfield Paradox).
It’s a shame in a way, because Annihilation’s dreamy, occasionally beautiful visuals will certainly lose an awful lot of impact on small screens – and will have none at all if you’re one of those people who watches on a phone: a platform which will absolutely annihilate Annihilation’s impact.
Here, Natalie Portman leads as an ex-soldier who’s one of a small team of scientists entering The Shimmer – a mysterious, slowly expanding zone that’s sprung up somewhere on the American coast, defined by what looks like an oil bubble-like forcefield at its edge, and mutating the flora and fauna within its lush, sun-dappled and rainbow-hued interior.
The team – also including Jennifer Jason Leigh as its enigmatic head – are just the latest batch of people trying to solve The Shimmer’s purpose.
However, although plenty of others have been sent into the mysterious miasma, nobody ever comes back – nobody, that is, except for Portman’s violently ill soldier husband (Oscar Isaac), giving her a personal quest to help solve the mystery of The Shimmer.
To say much more about what happens within the zone would be unhelpful, as there’s little that actually happens, with the film largely focusing on fostering an intensely brooding tone and atmosphere rather than providing traditional story beats.
There are some moments of startling beauty (with special praise for its dreamy cinematography and lighting), as well as some unsettling gore and one particularly disturbing beast, but for the most part there’s something that seems a little too ‘low energy’ about Annihilation, despite a few all-guns-blazing moments.
Portman and Jason Leigh are giving it their brooding best, but the end result is very much the sum of its parts.
Personally, as gorgeous – and occasionally ghastly – as its wonderfully executed visuals are, it was hard not to think of similar scenes from other sources.
Many of Annihilation’s locations bring to mind visuals from some brilliant video games and franchises (The Last of Us, Uncharted, Final Fantasy, Bloodborne), with echoes of the quiet environmentalism behind much of Japanese anime and manga master Hayao Miyazaki’s work (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind) also drifting past.
The intense inner intellectualism driving the characters along – and the possible impact on the world around them – also brings to mind Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal Solaris (1972), which saw an alien water planet reacting to/manipulating the astronauts trying to study it.
That’s a hell of a lot of stuff to think about when considering what’s basically just a sci-fi film about a mysterious zone that’s full of some creepy/cool stuff.
Although I was personally underwhelmed by Annihilation, it’s been a critical hit, with plenty of rave reviews, although it’s too early to say just yet what the long-term audience reaction will be, as it was just globally released on Monday.
While I found the film to be a curate’s egg unintentionally stuffed full of overly familiar parts, most of its audience will see this with much fresher eyes.
Even at its worst, there are some very interesting, thoughtful ideas at the heart of Garland’s latest, providing a refreshing alternative to the utterly dumbed down sci fi that we’re mostly treated to.
(That said, I’m looking forward to Pacific Rim 2, because watching giant robots wrestling with kaiju and trashing cities is difficult to make boring.)
While it may seem a little too long, too intellectual or too esoteric for many, Annihilation is a very pretty and occasionally creepy way to kill a couple of hours.
It’s also an interesting benchmark to note as Netflix begins to flex its muscles in a bid to, perhaps, challenge cinema’s dominance for most big budget or critically acclaimed releases.
Ultimately, that may prove to be even more interesting to consider than The Shimmer itself…