Writer/director Alex Garland has risen through the ranks of contemporary filmmakers quite quickly, and for good reason. With Dredd, Garland could have been the new Paul Verhoeven. With his official directorial debut Ex Machina, he might have motioned the arrival of an English equivalent to Andrei Tarkovsky. But with Annihilation, Garland could eventually take up the mantle of Stanley Kubrick the 2nd as he hits his creative peak, crafting a cerebral mind-bender that asks lofty questions and expects you to question those in turn.
I’m being deliberately cryptic already, as Annihilation depends upon you knowing little to anything about its plot prior to viewing. Therefore, all I can say is this: Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist and ex-marine who, alongside a team of four other women – Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson) and Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) – enters an indefinable phenomenon dubbed as “The Shimmer”, an anomalous space of mutated land enveloped by a coloured shroud, from which no previous expeditioner has returned.
Once inside, the company undergo a series of increasingly perplexing, maddening and inexplicable events that betray the laws of physics, temporality and corporeality. But this isn’t Fast and Furious: Garland’s subversion of these definitive areas of study is entirely deliberate and wholly thought-provoking, as he questions everything we know and take for granted. This is a deeply philosophical film, one that destabilises biological categorisation, undoes pre-conceived notions of identity and interrogates the very idea of “what’s next?”. In other words, it’s exactly the kind of film that caused me to fall in love with the cinema in the first place: Annihilation entices the mind, body and spirit, transporting us to a world that is visually unlike anything we’ve ever seen, yet intellectually determined for us to face something that’s all too familiar and in need of some explanation: human life.
I know, this all sounds so airy, highbrow and critic-friendly. But I stop your concerns there. Because Annihilation is also a tensely paced, intimately shot and beautifully creative science-fiction horror in its own right: a lovechild of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and John Carpenter’s The Thing. When it’s not intelligently pondering on the meaning of life, Garland’s film is exploring the vibrant flora and fauna of its undiscovered country, getting to know the ins and outs of its troubled characters and offering a number of terrifying sequences that evoke the extraordinary body-horror of Carpenter and David Cronenberg, the most memorable of which is an unexpected encounter with a mutated bear, whose ominous growl takes on the form of a human voice. It’s unsettling to say the least and a far cry from the friendly, anthropomorphised animals of Pixar’s Ratatouille and Up.
It’s undeniably refreshing that Annihilation’s female leads are as fleshed out as they are, amidst all of this technical and notional ambition. Garland doesn’t make this a self-fulfilling show: Portman and co. are given the material to deliver the acting goods that they are known for. But Portman is the standout, delivering a subtle, intricately gestured performance that effectively conveys a woman in a crisis of stasis. Unsure whether to go back or forward, Lena is a conflicted character and as a result, is the perfect perspective through which the spectator can identify with the issues that Garland is raising within the film: this is all made possible through Portman’s execution and it’s her best performance since Black Swan.
Even more impressive is the sheer originality of its visual storytelling. The world of Annihilation is fascinating, brimming with colour and creativity. Part New Orleans bayou, part post-apocalyptic wasteland, “The Shimmer” is both recognisable yet entirely alien, a familiar world with an evolutionary lick of paint. Its wildlife is unusual but provocative, an assembly of crossbreeds that inspire cathartic and paralytic reactions to their beauty/grotesquery. And all of this, captured by the aesthetically attentive eye of Rob Hardy, whose cinematography works wonders in realising Garland’s vision.
Annihilation is, simply put, a pristine piece of science-fiction filmmaking. Its constitutive elements all weave seamlessly together, to tell its complex story as effectively as possible. Its performances establish an emotional connection to the spectator, avoiding the risk of subjective detachment from the film. Yet it’s rooted deeply in philosophical discourses: brush up on your Hegel, Kant and Derrida as Annihilation has a crack at them all, toying with grand ideas such as consciousness and signification, so as to spark the fire of inward reflection that the film clearly strives for, right up until its debate-worthy conclusion. A film that works your eyes, mind and heart, Annihilation could well stand as a modern classic by the end of 2018. Bring on your next project, Alex Garland: the anticipation is already killing me.