Starring Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Directed by Alex Garland
“Too clever to be a success” is a phrase that means “isn’t a dumb movie that objectifies”. In the case of many recent science fiction films, this phrase has been used to explain films that failed or ones that were expected to. Inception was an intelligent science fiction film with a big scope and name actors that set the box office on fire, Prometheus for all its flaws at least had ideas and wanted the audience to think. On a smaller scale, Luke Scott’s Morgan was an intelligent thriller with a sci-fi bent that expected the audience to think.
Alex Garland, the author, screenwriter, director who seems to possess a Midas touch; with his novels The Beach and The Tesseract, and his screenplays for 28 Days Later… Sunshine, Dredd and Never Let Me Go – all brilliant films and even his directorial debut Ex Machina, a great intelligent sci-fi thriller like the ones they made in the 70s. Now he brings us Annihilation, an adaptation of a book about a team of women scientists who go into an area that they do not know.
Netflix picked up this film after it failed to make a splash at the US box office, but this offers a platform for a wider audience. The film sets it out its table very easily, the area known as the ‘Shimmer’ is a deadly area that no one should go into. Having sent male lead military expeditions to this meteorite based land the idea is to send scientists in instead (they also happen to be all ladies) and from the get-go the table is laid out pretty fast.
The film is filled with science fiction veterans; people who have already cut their teeth in big-budget fantasy, or low budget ideas films. Natalie Portman is our lead, torn between different time frames, and attempting to figure out what happened when her partner – played by Oscar Isaac – also entered the ‘Shimmer”. The two share few scenes together, but there is an obvious chemistry there, made easier by the fact that Portman clearly loves that women are being put front and centre, and that all the cliches of the science fiction genre are being subverted. Her team also has Jennifer Jason Leigh leading the charge, along with Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny.
What follows is a science fiction film that expects us to be as intelligent as the people in it. There is something to this – the plot itself is hard to explain without falling into spoilers, so instead, let’s cover the things that work best: all five of our central women are brilliant, taking their characters and crafting proper, fully rounded characters with scars (physical and mental) that motivate, stunt and help them as the film goes on. Garland is clearly more interested in women in his writing that the men. This comes through in all his work, but here it is front and centre.
The horror shell calls to mind the wasteland of 28 Days Later… but with the natural disaster horror of a more intelligent The Happening. The ‘Shimmer’ revolves around a Lighthouse, a trope in classic horror stories and in science fiction. The lighthouse is used to guide people, light is the beginning and the end of all thing, the sun is the centre of our universe. It’s symbolic of the nature of survival and that with life comes death and vice versa.
The film has a tension throughout it all that doesn’t let up, the jumping between time frames only adds to the confusion. Inside the ‘Shimmer’ there are no laws of nature, there are only things that hold a vague resemblance to things we recognise. The forests are deep and filled with strange exotic coral designs with sinister faces and corpses woven in. It’s a film about the beauty of nature and the nature of beauty. These themes are explored in a way that never feels like it’s doing it to be radical. It’s a film that looks at things with a logic, it makes sense to send scientists, it makes sense to send women, it makes sense to send people with past trauma and little to no family. These aren’t gimmicks there almost scientific facts.
Garland is at his best when he’s building the tension and leaving characters to talk. Scenes of Portman walking in the jungle alone looking at strange almost mythical creatures are fraught with tension. Conversations, almost always with Jason Leigh in them have a clinical cold nature to them, helped by Leigh’s characters motivation. The horror and the gore are done in a way that doesn’t even feel like it’s trying to gross you out, there’s an elegance to the corpses, a serene quality that makes life appear constantly unappealing.
Garland has outdone Ex Machina with a film that dares to be different, dares to have scope not just in it’s setting but in its ideas, its values and its possibilities. Annihilation might spell the end of us, but it’s the beginning of proper adult science fiction.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.