Original sci-fi deserves a place atop the annals of film history. When executed properly, sci-fi films are largely about big ideas and questioning the world we know by creating a world we don’t know. On that level, Alex Garland’s latest film, Annihilation, succeeds in every way you would want a genre film to succeed.
Unlike most films in the genre, Annihilation is set in what appears to be modern civilization. The only problem is, there is something else here and it’s encroaching on the world we all know. Code-named “The Shimmer”, there is a strange phenomena on the coast of some US state barricaded off by a government entity who has been sending in missions, mostly military, to try and figure out what it is without any success, save for one Army sergeant (Oscar Isaac) who comes back fatally ill.
Enter the protagonist (Natalie Portman), Biology professor and cellular expert who also happens to be the wife of the ill survivor, and a team of intellectual and capable women who form a unit to go in and study the strange occurrence. The film wastes little time in getting the team into “The Shimmer”, keeping the exposition to a minimum. This is where the film excels beyond most sci-fi films, which are want to present their big idea and spend enormous amounts of time explaining situations and ideas. The best films let the story do the explaining by showing the audience visually what the idea is and letting them figure it out. It creates an active viewer and ultimately engages the audience, and Garland manages to do that by giving you just enough information, but never a full answer.
It’s safe to say the film owes it’s existence largely to the past films of Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker), John Carpenter (The Thing), and Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey), who are prevalent narrative overseers throughout the film. It’s an eclectic mix of influences, but Garland uses each of their strengths to create a truly unsettling and thought-provoking story by mixing philosophical and scientific concepts, horrific violence, and beautifully haunting imagery that might cause Lewis Carroll to lose sleep.
Much of the film’s wonder is owed to Garland’s script, which usually answers one question by posing another. It deals with themes of loss and frailty, imbuing each member of the team with a damaged quality that only enhances the philosophical depth of the film. If there are any gripes I have it would be that we learn so little about each of the main characters except for Portman and Isaac, but even that can be attributed to part of the mystery.
The highlights of the film are the sound design, the visual realization of a strange world engulfing our own, the gruesome body horror and effects, and finally, the final 30 minutes of the film. I’d have to say the very final scene causes some issues I’d rather not get into here, but the preceding scenes are spellbinding and the work of an expert storyteller. It’s in those final scenes where the Kubrick-ian influence hangs heaviest on the film, and I’d have to think he would have approved of the homage.
I know not everyone will have the ability to see this in theaters due to the odd distribution deal surrounding this film, but it’s worthy genre fare if you have the opportunity. Rarely do we have a movie that poses this many questions and allows the viewer to figure it out without giving them the answer. It’s the rare film that may necessitate multiple viewings in order to fully unpack the story. In a sense, art should be about asking questions, and Alex Garland has proven through this film and his previous one (2014’s Ex Machina) that he might be the pre-eminent artist working in genre film today.