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It’s been a tough couple of years over at Paramount as they piece together a new strategy following on from a number of badly underperforming releases. Part of the plan seems to be selling on potential box office flops to Netflix who appear to have more money than sense at the moment. Hot on the heels of The Cloverfield Paradox being sold to the streaming service we recently learned that Alex Garland’s Annihilation was set to follow suit, outside of the US, only a few weeks after its theatrical release. Given how badly it is performing after only two weeks in cinemas it looks like Paramount have made a smart financial call, and the further you travel down this rabbit hole of a film the more you start to see why the suits got so nervous.
Which is not say that Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel is a bad film, but it’s not what many casual movie watchers will be expecting because Annihilation isn’t your traditional blockbuster fare. Although far from Tarkovsky’s Stalker its influences can be seen everywhere including the mysterious zone being explored, the strange dreams experienced by the exploration party and the slow, deliberate pace of the narrative and dialogue. With that said, Garland doesn’t dispense with the trappings of genre filmmaking completely, working in monster-like set-pieces and more than a brief smattering of horror.
The film joins cellular biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) under interrogation in Area X, a secure military research unit recalling the events that took place inside The Shimmer, a strange area that appeared without explanation and has continued to expand ever since. We learn her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) was a member of the last exploration party who entered the zone and he suddenly reappeared out of the blue 12 months after being presumed dead. When he unexpectedly falls ill and is taken away by the military to Area X for examination, Lena is coaxed into joining Dr. Ventress’ (Jennifer Jason Leigh) all-female crew to go and investigate the origins of this alien-like phenomenon.
As is normally the case the usual blend of personalities make up the exploration team. Gina Rodriguez plays Anya, the outspoken hothead paramedic, Tessa Thompson takes on the intelligent but introverted personality of physicist Josie, Tuva Novotny’s Cass is a geologist driven by grief and Leigh’s Dr Ventress maintains an ice cold detachment from events. Portman’s Lena remains our focus and the deeper they venture into The Shimmer, the more abstract Garland’s film becomes. Much of the weirdness takes place in the final act leading towards a conclusion which will frustrate as many as it will intrigue due to its ambiguous nature.
The $55 million budget has enabled Garland to create a world far larger than the confined spaces of Ex Machina, and his creative flourishes can be seen in every part of the swampy marshland. But it’s a shame his DoP, Rob Hardy, doesn’t appear to be on the same page as the director. His soft focus photography and obsessive use of lens flare becomes a distraction and combined with the shallowness of the CGI it doesn’t paint the prettiest of pictures. Yet, it’s the performances that help to overcome the mishmash of ideas that make up the story and Portman reminds us just how compelling an actress she has remained throughout her career. She has always known how to carry a film and is supported here by a cast heavily invested into their roles.
Quite what The Shimmer and mysteries within are representative of are never made totally clear and maybe part of that comes down to Garland’s failure to hit the right emotional chords inside Lena and Kane’s marriage. There are a lot of good ideas being pitched that are never really moulded into a cohesive whole but Garland maintains his nerve and relentlessly holds true to his own vision. The reality is there aren’t many big budget sci-fi films ready to disappear into an hallucinogenic state when it’s time to cough up an explanation for the audience. So while Annihilation is not completely successful in everything it attempts to do, at the very least it’s ambitious, and in this modern age of safe-bet releases that’s something we should all be grateful for.