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Before it was announced that Annihilation was going to be screened in cinemas only in North America, this was one I was looking forward to quite a lot. I absolutely adored Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland (his directorial debut, actually) when it came out, and it is one of those films that I’ll happily have multiple repeat viewings of, just because it’s so well-written. Yet when the news dropped that the only way I was going to be able to see this was on Netflix, I was a bit annoyed, not least because it was apparently made to be seen on the biggest screen possible. That probably means IMAX, and in all honesty I think I’ve only ever been to one IMAX screening, and that was Alice in Wonderland back in 2010, and the fire alarm went off halfway through the film, interrupting the experience. (We got our money back.) Instead, I decided to watch Annihilation the way it was meant to be seen. Not on my laptop or my computer (although 27″ isn’t too bad for a desktop screen), but on the TV. Luckily, I have a 60″ screen, which isn’t something that can be said for everyone, but this is one of those films where I do recommend you watch it on the biggest screen you own.
The reason being that the special effects are superb. Before I get ahead of myself and explain said special effects in a bit more, non-spoiler-y detail, I will say that Annihilation posits itself as a groundbreaking foray into the genre of science-fiction, once again proving that Garland (who again wrote and directed this film) is a master at what he does. Instead of having a robot at the core of the film, this time the heroes are faced with an anomaly in the form of an asteroid. It’s something familiar, insofar that an asteroid hurtling to Earth with some unexplained phenomenon having hitched a ride through the depths of space is a trope that’s been explored, but never with as much art or subtlety as this. Having said that, Garland merely adapted this from the novel written by Jeff VanderMeer, so joint credit is due on this occasion. Credit must also be given for how the story explores all of the characters. With a runtime of 115 minutes, you would expect there to be ample time to cover everything, although a couple of the characters don’t get as much screen time as the others. This is fine, as the film is centred around Portman, and we learn that Lena is a complex character with human desires, human faults, and human troubles. Humanity, ultimately, is the heart of this film.
After her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), returns from a top secret mission after being presumed dead for just over a year, Lena (Natalie Portman), decides to sign up for a dangerous mission to go into The Shimmer, a mysterious area that is the result of the asteroid crash, where the laws of nature don’t apply. Lena is able to accompany the other women on this ‘adventure’ not by virtue of the fact that they’re all females, but because she’s a biologist, so her expertise would be vital in attempting to understand The Shimmer. But laws in The Shimmer don’t apply to the ones on Earth, and this is where the need to see Annihilation on the big screen really comes to life. The further into The Shimmer this team of women trek, the stranger the environment becomes. Plants and their surroundings aren’t the only things that change; the wildlife is also affected: an alligator is hybridised with a shark. Mutations quickly become the norm, but that doesn’t mean that the team gets used to their new situation. The further away from reality they march and the closer they walk to the epicentre, it is clear that everything about The Shimmer is abnormal. If ever you’ve read Michael Grant’s GONE series, you’ll get a certain vibe with Annihilation that is reminiscent of those brilliant books.
The Shimmer doesn’t just mess with nature; it messes with the mind. Blank spaces in Lena and the team’s memory stretches their trust in one another and themselves, so they they begin to lose their grip on what is real and what isn’t, creating wonderfully tense moments of paranoia within the group. The tension is ratcheted up constantly, yet you’re ironically lulled into an almost false sense of security when nothing bad happens for too long. This is the mastery of the writing at work: Annihilation is a sci-fi thriller, and isn’t afraid to make you afraid, but actually when you’re least expecting it. There are rarely any cheap pot-shots at trying to make the audience jump here; instead you’re drawn in, in a similar way that you’re drawn in while watching The Woman in Black (be it on screen or at the theatre, and I should know, having experienced it in both mediums), so that when the scares come, they’re more than deserved. There are a couple of times when, if you’re accustomed to it, you’re able to look out and spot the moment that’s meant to make you jump, but more often than not, Annihilation freaks you out in a different way entirely. It is quietly expectant, while being full of surprises, so that you’re not quite sure what is real and what is not – just like the women who enter The Shimmer.
This is perhaps one of the things I enjoyed the most about Annihilation out of everything. It’s the fact that 90% of the cast – if not more – are female. Lena joins Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) as they decide to be the first female team to venture into The Shimmer. Representation is important, and is rampant in Annihilation: two fifths of the team are black women, and one of them is a lesbian. It’s not much, but it’s actually a big step in the right direction considering how Hollywood still believe that films should be predominately made by white men for white men (and maybe white women). This is a myth that has been utterly obliterated by Black Panther, but I won’t get into that now. I will say that it was refreshing and enjoyable as hell to see female actors getting to play women in a film and for the film to be a damn great one, never mind just good. Therefore it’s maddeningly annoying how Paramount Pictures sold the rights to Netflix. Films like these are important, not just because they deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible, but also from the point of view of representation’s sake. Women are humans too, Hollywood.
The framing of Annihilation was a strange one. It had my least favourite storytelling device coupled with one of my favourite storytelling devices: the power of flashbacks. For those white men who are worried about feeling ostracised due to this film, don’t worry, because you do get to see Isaac in more than one scene, as Annihilation does also explore Lena and Kane’s relationship. I won’t go into spoilers, but you do end up finding out a lot, and moral quandaries are certainly prevalent at times. Nevertheless, this is first and foremost Portman’s movie, and I’m going to try my best not to nitpick at how the film starts at the end, just because the overlapping storytelling works in Annihilation’s favour. Also, you don’t really know who all of the characters are until later on, so I wouldn’t worry too much about the beginning potentially spoiling the ending for you. The third act is still a tremendous piece of science-fiction storytelling no matter what, and the twists that are delivered are well deserved. Isaac may become Garland’s muse in the future if and when they collaborate again (as I have no doubt that they will when Garland creates yet another masterpiece of the genre), but he could not have done it without Portman’s performance. Annihilation ticks all the boxes and then some, as you’re whisked away into The Shimmer. This is an exciting, visually-stunning, brilliant movie from a writer-director who has absolutely stamped his own unique mark on the genre.
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