Most genre films are trapped in their formula, a sequence of tropes and cliches that leave you confident you understand what’s about to happen next and unsurprised by the Big Twist ending. Science fiction is no different, and there are so many films that take place in a future that’s ripped right out of Blade Runner or on a space station “inspired” by Alien or in the midst of an epic space battle that’s just a variation on Star Wars. The culprit is probably risk averse studios that don’t want to invest $100 mil or more on a film just to find that it’s too esoteric, too cerebral or too obscure for most audiences.
Every so often, however, a film comes along that goes in a bold new direction, surprising audiences and delighting the discerning viewer, even as others scratch their head and feel unsettled by the lack of predictability in the story arc. A recent example of this was the brilliant Arrival, a smart and highly engaging film that took the science seriously and offered up a wonderous and surprising story. Annihilation is another terrific genre-busting films that offers a unique story told in a beautiful style on screen.
The film opens with a meteor – or something from space – plunging through the Earth’s atmosphere and crashing into a lighthouse in the middle of a swamp somewhere in the southern United States. Flash forward a few years and we meet biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), a professor at a local college. She’s married to Kane (Oscar Isaac) but he’s been gone a year, possibly to Afghanistan or some other deployment, but she just doesn’t know. He reappears without warning, but he’s not himself. Spacy, confused, without any memories of them together, he ends up kidnapped by the government en route to a hospital, and Lena with him.
Turns out that Kane was one of a group of soldiers sent into Area X, known informally as The Shimmer, a strange distortion field that’s grown up around the lighthouse. Teams go in, but their radios fail to work, cameras fail, satellite imagery is a bust and no-one ever comes back. Except Kane. But how can that be, and how did Kane suddenly get to their apartment?
Lena joins a team of women scientists who are heading into The Shimmer to find out, a team lead by the psychiatrist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and including the tough paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson) and anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny). From the get-go, however, things are weird and the laws of nature clearly don’t apply.
Simultaneous to the story of them exploring Area X to reach the lighthouse and find out what’s going on, Lomax (Benedict Wong) is also interrogating a dazed Lena while wearing a biohazard suit. There are also flashbacks to Lena and Kane’s relationship, but are they real?
One of the appealing aspects of Annihilation is the sophisticated use of time to simultaneously explore the story before, during and after Lena enters The Shimmer. It’s very reminiscent of Arrival, which is why I cited it earlier in this review, something we can thank auteurs like Chris Nolan for championing in modern cinema. The exploration of Area X itself is wondrous and weird both, and not without its terrors and even a jump scare or two.
The film is based on a popular trilogy by author Jeff VanderMeer and definitely takes some liberties with the source story. In the book, for example, characters are only referenced by their job titles, and the first book ends ambiguously, while the film is much more self-contained. There were also more lurking dangers in the book that kept appearing, while the film downplayed the sense of dread and danger. On the plus side, the film is a more satisfying story overall because even as it has a complicated temporal structure, it still has its own beginning, middle and conclusion.
And oh, those visual effects. While many are subtle – like the profusion of flowers everywhere, with different types of flowers on the same plant – there are others like the crystal trees and the shimmer itself that are trippy and cool. The entire film has a bit of a psychedelic feel to it, a movie that might be better enjoyed after a glass or two of wine or similar substances.
There’s much to like in Annihilation, from the solid performances by the entire cast to the engaging storyline and excellent visual effects. It hasn’t been promoted very aggressively and it’s up against the fantastically popular Black Panther in the theaters right now so it might not be a blockbuster, but it’s a solid sci-fi film that’s well worth seeing in the theater, even down to the trippy closing title sequence. Go see it!
It is not, however, small child friendly. There are some jump scares and a terrifying beast or two, along with a lot of tense scenes. A solid PG-13 and even then I’m not sure a younger teen would understand the nuances of this intriguing story.