The new science fiction thriller from novelist-cum-director Alex Garland, Annihilation, is precisely the kind of film risk-averse Hollywood studios take the scissors to. Cinematographer Rob Hardy’s gloomy, overcast aesthetic eventually brightens, but the protagonist – a professor of cellular biology, played by Natalie Portman – becomes no more relatable, and the actor’s performance no less painfully restrained.
Adapted by Garland from a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, the film presents a vividly rendered fantasy world component but is grounded by a kind of quasi-speculative science – less theme park than university textbook. No narrative solutions could possibly bring absolute closure to its head-in-the-cloud hypothesising, given the veneer of scientific credibility through shoptalk (“mutations” this and “refractions” that) and biological imagery (like pictures of cells and exotic inflorescent plants).
A mysterious area called The Shimmer, rimmed by a fluorescent-looking wall, is slowly spreading across the earth.
Following a concerning response from audience test screenings – a practice more meaningful in visceral, audience-response genres such as comedy and horror – the studio, Paramount, sought changes, including reworking the film’s ending. Producer Scott Rudin had final cut rights, however, and sided with the director. This prompted Paramount to sell Annihilation to Netflix. The film misses out on a theatrical release everywhere in the world other than the US, Canada and China, but remains to the best of our knowledge uncompromised – unlike several ambitious sci-fi’s before it, such as Blade Runner and Dark City.
Garland navigates the ‘all planets are earth-like’ trope by essentially putting another planet on our own soil. A mysterious area called The Shimmer, rimmed by a fluorescent-looking wall, is slowly spreading across the earth. The government has bought time by claiming a chemical outbreak, but the excuse won’t stick. Lena (Portman) and an all-female convoy trudge inside, discovering a kind of corrupted Xanadu or Garden of Eden take two – beautiful and logic-defying, with sinister elements slithering through the grass.
The director paints the place as a magnet for broken souls. Lena is there because her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returned from The Shimmer gravely sick from a mysterious illness. The rest of the group are psychologist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Jodie (Tessa Thompson) and surveyor and geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny). All have profound problems, including addiction and suicidal ideation.
“Volunteering for this is not exactly something you do if your life is in perfect harmony,” says Cass, who lost her daughter to leukemia. It’s one of several sententious lines that suggest, while the characters might not understand this new world, they somehow bear a profound knowledge of the subtext of the film itself, and an uncanny ability to articulate it. There’s also: “Almost none of us commit suicide, and almost all of us self-destruct,” and: “The person that started this journey won’t be the person that ends it.”
Annihilation is an above average, trope-larded riff on ‘they went in to investigate; they didn’t return’.
Annihilation is, unquestionably, a pale imitation of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 head trip Stalker, aesthetically and to a degree thematically. ‘The Shimmer’ (called ‘Area X’ in the book) stands in for what the Russian director called ‘The Zone’ – a surreal place that does not adhere to the rules of reality. “Pale imitation” might be a harsher criticism if Stalker wasn’t one of the greatest science fiction films ever made: an intoxicating and soul-stirring masterpiece, with lush, nectarous canvases that seem painted by the gods.
Annihilation, on the other hand, is an above average, trope-larded riff on ‘they went in to investigate; they didn’t return’ and ‘you get out by going deeper in’. Another film recently snapped up by Netflix, the excellent The Ritual, is similar in these regards, following a group of friends who get lost in a Swedish forest and encounter evils within. It has less spiffy scaffolding but is more compelling psychologically, with greater clarity of purpose – extrapolating horror off the back of a single, emotionally-charged introductory moment, rather than the vaguer and more wistful approach preferred by Garland.
The director’s previous film was 2014’s Ex Machina, a robot-themed chamber piece that was an unexpected hit on the indie circuit. Is it about a doomed romance, or a troubled species? The same question could be asked of Annihilation. Some will say the film is not as profound as it thinks it is, but Garland does more than point his camera to the heavens and say: ‘you figure it out’. Those aforementioned, sententious bits of dialogue demonstrate that – despite what a Hollywood studio might think – ambiguity is not the film’s biggest problem.
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Annihilation will launch on Netflix on March 12, 2018