Writer-director Alex Garland has not featured his talents in many films, but he has quite the Midas touch: everything he touches arguably turns into a masterpiece, which will likely hold up for generations to come. He made his directorial debut with 2015’s “Ex Machina,” starring Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac, blowing away critics and casual moviegoers alike with its predictions of a not-too-distant future inhabited by artificial intelligence.
When Garland’s sophomore effort, “Annihilation,” based on a book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, hit theaters, it came as a welcomed love letter to science fiction films.
Featuring Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac and Jennifer Jason Leigh, this film is told over multiple timelines. Lena (Portman), a cellular biologist and ex-army soldier, wakes up in a room, and goes through intense, quarantined questioning regarding her time in “The Shimmer,” an area in the south that heavily resembles an iridescent airborne oil slick.
Almost a year prior, her husband, Kane (Isaac), an active duty soldier, leaves for a top-secret mission with little to no information beforehand on where he would be stationed. After six months, Lena had presumed he was dead, but had an inkling of hope that he would return one day.
Kane does indeed appear home one day, but he is not the same as when he left. Disoriented, he attempts to answer Lena’s questions as he grows weaker by the moment. In a whirlwind of events, Kane is whisked away in an ambulance while Lena follows, but government officials intercept them on the way, taking them to the research base near “The Shimmer.”
Enter Dr. Ventress (Leigh), who performs a psychological assessment on Lena before requesting her help on a project to enter “The Shimmer” alongside the likes of a physicist, an anthropologist and a medic. Lena eventually says she would like to help, and thus begins the adventure of five smart and powerful women to explore “The Shimmer,” a place where no man or woman has ever made it out alive.
From there, the film transforms into an honest and breathtaking series of events that follows the lives, and deaths, of these five women as they figure out all of the components which make up “The Shimmer.”
The intricacies and details involved in the making of this movie exude confidence and imagination, as the “Annihilation” team devises what feels like an entirely new world in the span of the film’s two-hour run-time. Everything from the music to the environment feels refreshing, as if Garland wrote down every single idea he felt no one had executed before, and implemented them in this film.
Every time the viewer feels they have a grasp on what the movie is trying to portray, Garland’s screenplay throws another curve ball into the mix. The film assumes the viewer is intelligent, but does not feel overly pretentious; despite every character possessing a wealth of information, what they say is palatable.
What makes “Annihilation” great, however, is not necessarily the actors and actresses involved, though they all performed beautifully. As of late, ‘strange’ movies, such as “The Shape of Water” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” demonstrate the public’s growing willingness to embrace unfamiliar concepts in mainstream films.
“Annihilation” acts as both a starting point for those who are new to science fiction movies, and as a nuanced piece of art for those who have long enjoyed all things strange. Its approachability with cast choices, like Natalie Portman and Gina Rodriguez, serve as a comfort for moviegoers, while its outlandish, conceptual nature draws people out of their comfort zones.
Somehow, the film straddles the delicate balance between adding enough emotional involvement to make the characters on screen feel relatable, and adding other elements (especially while in “The Shimmer”) that make the characters feel otherworldly.
“The Shimmer” is, quite literally, otherworldly. From the glass beaches which grow seashells made from human ribs, to the animal hybrids that threaten the womens’ very existence, this forbidden area is painted to be a horrifying, yet beautiful depiction of what an extraterrestrial invasion could look like.
After the acclaim of “Ex Machina,” no one was quite sure how Garland was going to live up to his reputation for his sophomore effort, but, if anything, “Annihilation” proved that Garland is not a name to be taken lightly. This is only the start of amazing, intelligent and beautiful films (all of which probably starring Oscar Isaac), which is both exciting, and absolutely terrifying.