By Billy Jepma ’18
Alex Garland’s newest science fiction film is a mind bending, slow burn thriller that, while sporting more than its fair share of existential dread, is less a horror movie and more a painful deconstruction of grief, loss, and the often self-destructive lengths we will go to to avoid dealing with those issues.
Starring Natalie Portman as Lena, a former soldier and current biologist, “Annihilation” follows her and a team of four other women scientists as they embark on an expedition into the mysterious, potentially extraterrestrial “Shimmer,” an electromagnetic field that appeared on earth several years prior to the film’s beginning and has continued to grow since then.
The premise itself is immediately captivating, and while the Shimmer is never entirely explained, the haunting mystery of the wall composed of expanding light and the frightening genetic mutations that occur within its boundaries is the lifeblood of the movie.
For audiences looking for a satisfying, conclusive narrative, however, “Annihilation” may not be the movie for them, as the script––written by Garland and based off of the book by Jeff VanderMeer––is content to propose lofty questions and ideas without ever actually addressing them. Instead, the film lets the unknown to fester in both its characters and its audience, creating an experience that is equal parts haunting and unsettling.
Much of the film’s success rests on the shoulders of Portman’s subtle and meticulous performance. Her ability to convey so much pain, anger, and terror is perhaps the only real anchor the audience gets to hold onto.
Portman’s eyes are the ones the audience can see the film through, and even when things get existential and abstract in the latter half, it is Portman’s compelling characterization that keeps the audience invested.
However, Portman is not the only standout here, as her supporting cast are equally captivating in their minor, albeit affecting, roles.
Everyone makes the best of the material they are given, with special mention going to Gina Rodriquez and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who succeed in delivering complex emotions and motivation seamlessly.
With that said, it is hard to avoid the feeling that “Annihilation” appears a bit like an unfinished painting. Its characters, themes, and narrative tension are all superb, but they never truly arrive at a place where they feel complete.
This is certainly an intentional move on the film’s part. It effectively leaves the audience to ponder the repercussions of what they have just watched, but it also makes for a slightly frustrating experience.
Similar to the transparent, distorted Shimmer between two different worlds, “Annihilation” seems to set up a similar wall between the message and its audience.
We can see what the film is trying to say, but are prevented from truly understanding it, which creates a sense of urgent incompletion that has already proven to be divisive among viewers.
Ultimately, however, “Annihilation” is a powerful and affecting piece of intellectual science fiction, and as much as its bold ambitions may not connect with everyone, Garland and his crew should be applauded for making a film that is just as challenging to consume as it is beautiful to look at.
“Annihilation” is not an simple movie, but it is a memorable one and deserves to be seen in the theater if possible, where the invasive unnerving score and Garland’s evocative direction can be seen in all of their haunting glory.