Review: Annihilation

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Another month, another Netflix release! Annihilation is a surprisingly different experience.

When a Lena’s husband returns from war having been presumed dead, he is suffering from a bizarre pathogen and she looks to find out what happened. She finds herself recruited into a suicide mission investigating a extraterrestrial landscape that is overwhelming the natural world.

Reviews for Annihilation are divided in opinion, and after watching the film, you can see why. Written and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina) the film is a slow and eerie experience, reminiscent of 28 Days Later, another story written by Garland. Following five women, a mixture of soldiers and scientists, sent into what is being called “The Shimmer”, a pearlescent field that blocks all communication devices and is spreading across the coast. Teams have been sent in before but have never returned, until Lena’s husband mysteriously arrived.
The protagonists here are all broken individuals, which answers a great deal about their motivations in accepting a mission that has proven fatal. Unlike say… Alien: Covenant, a film with more than twice the budget. Played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny, the women all land good performances, although most of them are tropes – you can call all of their personalities just by looking at the poster.

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But don’t let this fool you; having an all-female cast is not used as some sort of political statement here, the characters are honest and robust. These aren’t flaky, shallow “girls” who complain about girlish things or speak the way Hollywood often depicts them to… If anything, they are written in a classic role-reversal manner; you can easily see these characters being male or female. Gender does not enter into the equation; they are simply the individuals for the mission.
But where the film shines brightest is surely in its atmosphere, cinematography and set design (elements that often shine with projects Garland is affiliated with), Annihilation has an incredible dream-like quality. Set mostly in forested swampland, we are quick to see that whatever is happening within the Shimmer is some sort of mutagen; something that warps the natural world into familiar-yet-unfamiliar shapes and nature. Perhaps this is the extent of the production value; being able to trick the eye with a mixture of real and clearly fantastical elements (no doubt Paramount’s influence can be felt here, unlike most Netflix releases). For such a sinister film, it is very bright and colourfully designed, which by today’s standards is refreshing to see.
It is surprisingly grim and horrific in tone sometimes, which can take audiences by surprise. Imagery not unlike the The Thing‘s body horror or even Alien, are mixed in with an almost Denis Villeneuve-style beautiful camera work, rack up the tension immensely, allowing for some inventive creature designs to jar and shock when we least expect it. It has an original blend of existing material, evocative of the story’s premise. Fans of the video game The Last Of Us, will probably get a kick from it.

To top it all off, a pseudo-science narrative about DNA, cell division and corruption from tumors, all climaxes with one of the weirdest endings seen in a long time. Almost 2001: A Space Odyssey levels of unnerving and yet a strangely engrossing look into the primitive human mentality.
Certainly, this is one of those science fiction stories that does not give you answers. In fact, Annihilation enjoys telling us it “doesn’t know” all the answers, and perhaps this is where audiences are feeling left out in the cold. “Annihilation” might be misrepresentation, as this is by far an action film, it is more an ambiguous experience that follows the idea of “self-destruction”.

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It is not a perfect film. Garland’s stories are often about Earth-shaking events but from a small-scale perspective, making it relatable. 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Ex Machina, all do this. But Annihilation starts off with a reasonably hard pill to swallow: a contagion that has been growing across the surface of the planet for at least a year has been kept quiet, and that with many military teams going in first, this team is next? A team that appears to be surprisingly under-equipped. The Shimmer has also occurred on the coast… but there’s no mention of oceanic life being affected, or any concerns of life leaving the affected area.

Overall, it is a gorgeous movie with good performances and a cerebral take on science fiction. It is not for everyone, certainly, as someone who enjoys sci-fi a great deal and can process a lot of it, the ending still managed to perplex me. It is an eerie, unsettling and, at times, surprisingly human adventure.

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