Studio: Paramount Pictures
Directed by Alex Garland

Feb 22, 2018 Web Exclusive
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The moment Annihilation fully takes hold is a moment that could have been a cheap, throw-away moment. Our five heroes are fully immersed in this unknown land, exploring an abandoned, half-sunken house in a swamp. As Josie (Tessa Thompson) stands in the open door of the slanted shack, telling her partners that it’s empty, she suddenly gets yanked into the darkness behind her. It’s a jump scare. It’s one of the most tried and true items in a horror filmmaker’s bag of tricks, and it often seems like the easy way out. But it’s deployed to perfection.

Until that moment, the danger of “The Shimmer” is merely theoretical. A group of scientists enter a zone called “The Shimmer” in search of clues to what happened to the soldiers who had entered before, and to what “The Shimmer” actually is. In appearance, it’s a growing, glowing dome over a portion of land on the coast. The soldiers who last entered never returned – save for one, and he’s deliriously ill – and the glimmering mass continues to spread. It won’t be long before it becomes public knowledge, so in they go once more.

As Lena (Natalie Portman), Josie (Thomspon), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and Cass (Tuva Novotny) enter the unknown, it’s immediately apparent that things don’t operate the same way. Lena awakes in her tent, disoriented, and discovers that she and the others have no recollection of making camp nor do they remember consuming three days’ worth of rations. Still, the danger hasn’t manifested itself physically, and then they reach the shack.

This world – which is their own, but not necessarily still of it – is simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. A single plant blooms in a way that it appears to be several different flowers, but they’re all part of a piece. The colors are vibrant, engaging, and then merged with subtly horrifying images and structures. Every moment of Annihilation contains a visceral component, and it’s probably best experienced without reading a play-by-play description. Annihilation simply features some of the most creative, stunning, horrifying imagery of any movie in recent years. It’s a film drenched in CGI, but almost always feels tactile – save for a bit in the climax where an explosion of light consumes everything for a moment – and that is an incredible achievement. Rob Hardy’s cinematography created a depth of field that draws the eyes to the empty spaces at the margins, as though anything could be waiting in the emptiness, which makes the jump scares quite impactful, making Annihilation feel more three-dimensional than any movie that requires you to put on a pair of crummy glasses.

There is a convergence of style at play, here, in the storytelling. It is a trip into the unknown like Apocalypse Now, with a literal trip down the river. It’s a search for answers and meaning in a lush wasteland like Stalker. It’s a paranoia-infused thriller where trust quickly erodes, both of self and other, like The Thing. And there is a dose of 2001: A Space Odyssey, particularly in the climax, tossed in for good measure. Despite so many obvious analogs, Annihilation also feels wholly its own thing. It’s familiar, yet alien. Just like the terrain our heroes are traversing. And these nods aren’t simply winks at the audience declaring a certain cleverness, either. They are flourishes wholly in service of the story and the characters within, adding extra texture.

Annihilation is also an interesting variation on a theme in terms of an invasion story. It appears like a supernatural event, but it’s merged with the natural following what appears to be a meteor striking a lighthouse at the beginning. A seed is planted early, and expanded upon later, that perhaps the greatest threat to humanity will not be malevolent and precise, but indifferent and random.

Does it all hang together? Not really. Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is one of the soldiers who last entered the fray – and the one who returned a bit off-kilter – and she is shown to have had an affair in flashback sequences. This, in and of itself, is not a bad narrative choice, but it also feels executed in a way that could have been more implicit than explicit. And that may be where Annihilation stumbles at times. When it takes it upon itself to attempt to explain the nature of the event, or even sequences of character-driven exposition like the affair, it comes across as stilted. These are minor diversions from the grand spectacle, however, and it’s best when it stays grounded delivering slivers of information to the characters and the audience together.

The kaleidoscopic Annihilation is bound to dazzle and frustrate, spark debate and dismissal. Like many science fiction epics of its ilk, it is going to be divisive. For some, it will seem only partially formed while using its abstract nature as a crutch or an excuse for flimsy storytelling. For others, the mystery is the draw, especially when combined with the onslaught combination of beauty and horror that comes in equal measure.


Author rating: 9/10

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