Annihilation review: Alex Garlands latest is a chilling vision of human consciousness under threat

Natalie Portman stars in Annihilation. Peter Mountain/Paramount Pictures/Skydance

Some actresses use movie stardom as a stepping stone to mainstream roles as innocent ingenues and light comedy pixies, but that has never been Natalie Portman’s game plan. She was nominated for Oscars for stabbing love’s heart to pieces in the happily-never-after drama “Closer” and for delivering a bravura performance as blood-soaked Jackie Kennedy in “Jackie.” And she took home the gold statuette for going insane in a tutu for the ballet spine-chiller “Black Swan.”

So, the premise: Natalie Portman is Lena, a biologist and former soldier who finds herself in a government-run facility built around a mysterious being known as The Shimmer, an Upside Down-like presence – though more alien than inter-dimensional – that is gradually expanding across the land, threatening to engulf the Earth. What this would mean for the fate of the human race is unclear; all we know is that, of all the soldiers who have gone inside this strange phenomenon, only one has come back alive – Lenas husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) – and hes a shadow of his former self.

She has certainly found it in “Annihilation,” an audacious science fiction story unlike anything in her career — or anyone else’s. Almost exclusively centered on a five-woman exploring party entering deadly territory, it’s likely the most female-focused space opera ever made.

About an hour and forty five minutes into Annihilation, the latest film from screenwriter/director Alex Garland, I was hit by a pang of existential dread. Uncharacteristically, it was soon followed by a sense of elation: the film had taken a fairly typical sci-fi premise (the expedition into an unknown world) and woven it into something unique: a tapestry of our core anxieties – the meaninglessness of life, the loss of control, and good old fashioned death.

The film casts her as a biologist and combat veteran confronting mutated life-forms, firing assault rifles at alien beings and playing catch me if you can with a doppelg?nger who mirrors her every movement. All while trying to unlock the mystery virus that has sent her husband (Oscar Isaac) into hospital coma care. And to keep her increasingly shaky grip on sanity.

Guiding that character through a mission that transcends the usual man vs. monster adventure was irresistible, Portman said in a recent phone interview.

Much has been made of Paramounts decision to pull the films cinematic release outside of the US, and, while it is indeed a shame not to view it as it was intended, we should be thankful that Netflix stepped in to bring it to a worldwide audience. Now, lets just hope that people actually watch it so we can see more of its kind break through into the mainstream.

“I think I tend toward sort of psychologically based explorations, whether they’re in terms of fantasy or sci-fi or just straight drama,” she said. “It was a unique opportunity to get to play such an interesting character at a point in her life when she is in a crisis with who she is and exploring her own weakness.”

Equally, some of the films supporting players, such as the underused Tessa Thompson, can feel like archetypes of the kind of flawed movie characters that take on a mission from which they know theyre unlikely to return. Of Lenas fellow mercenaries, only Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is, as ever, brilliant) is given any true depth.

Especially because “Annihilation” was being directed by Alex Garland, whose jaw-dropping “Ex Machina” made a story about artificial intelligence really about men trying to control the women around them.

Driven by an apparent desire to understand her husbands plight, she signs up to enter the Shimmer on a last ditch expedition, flanked by a team of female scientists – a psychologist (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), a geomorphologist (Tuva Nuvotny), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez) and a physicist (Tessa Thompson).

“I’m such a fan of Alex’s work both as a writer and a director,” Portman said.

Once the gang is inside the Shimmer, the film begins to tick off horror tropes. Creatures lurking in the wilderness provide some jump scares, but the real fear is in the wider unknown. What is the source of this growth–- why is it distorting our world? And what happens when its grip takes hold?

What she didn’t realize when she signed on was that he had the artistic ability to create an alien environment distinct from any we’ve seen before.

A bear with a woman’s scream, its face peeled back to reveal a human skull, a suffering, lumbering thing. Flowers stuck in a continuous mutation — each bloom different, yet growing from the same plant. Synaptic, crystalline trees echoing the trees in the forest. A giant albino alligator flecked blood-red, with teeth like a shark. A tableau: a man ripped apart, embedded in flowers and lichen. A lighthouse swallowed up by something that resembles tree roots, bones, cancer. This is a place of mutations and phosphorescence, of fractals, of strangeness, the uncanny. This is the Shimmer, a three-year-old anomalous phenomenon that’s rapidly expanding, consuming the land. Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a film about memory, perception, transformation, mutation, the inexorable relationship between creation and destruction. It’s about self-destruction as something cosmological, alchemical, psychological, biological. It’s natural, and it’s devastating. After Lena’s husband Kane returns home, near death and remembering nothing after a year inside the Shimmer, Lena herself embarks on a suicide mission into the mystery of the Shimmer, and into herself. She is like Orpheus retrieving Eurydice in the underworld, only instead of being unable to look behind her as they flee, she must first take a good long look into the darkness before escaping.

“Alex is incredibly visual. Sometimes when he explains an idea for you, he draws it for you. He draws really well. It’s impressive, a lucky and unusual talent to have from our director.”

Annihilation Review: 8 Ups & 2 Downs

Garland’s renderings guided the production team through filling the film’s dangerous paradise with vast wreaths of eerie wildflowers. “It was really dressed,” she said of the set. “It’s the first time I’ve seen a production team work so much on exteriors.”

Natalie Portman’s Lena, a biologist teaching at Johns Hopkins and a former soldier, leads a lonely existence, mourning her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who has been gone for a year, lost on a covert military mission. He suddenly reappears in their home, without any memory of what happened. Kane acts strange. He doesn’t feel well and begins to cough up blood. An ambulance rushes him to the hospital, but the ride is intercepted, and they’re taken by a mysterious government agency. Lena wakes up in Area X, the Southern Reach facility where she meets psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and finds out Kane is hemorrhaging, suffering organ failure after having spent a year inside the Shimmer. Lena believes the knowledge of her infidelity drove Kane to go on a suicide mission; her guilt, curiosity, and something inexplicable compels her to join a new mission comprised of four other scientists. “We’re all damaged goods here,” Tuva Novotny’s Cass Sheppard tells Lena. Cass, the anthropologist, suffered the death of a child. The physicist, Tessa Thompson’s Josie Radek, self-harms. Cass describes Gina Rodriguez’s paramedic Anya Thorensen as sober – which means she’s an addict. No one knows what Ventress’s story is, only that she is completely isolated.

His drawings also prepared the actors for on-screen encounters with surreal creatures that wouldn’t be digitally added to the scene until months afterward.

And Lena’s drive to survive the Shimmer is strong. She’s the only character who feels she has someone waiting for her. “I wanted to come back. More than anything. I had to come back. I’m not sure any of them did,” Lena explains to Benedict Wong’s Lomax, who questions her in quarantine after she returns from the Shimmer. Annihilation, in its strange way, is a love story. Not a romance, but a trial of love, a testament to Lena’s commitment to Kane, to fighting through her guilt and pain to make amends. Cass told Lena she suffered two bereavements when she lost her daughter: her child’s death, and the person she once was. The man Kane once was died inside the Shimmer, and the man who came out is technically no longer Kane. But “new” Kane’s only impulse is to find Lena once he’s escaped the Shimmer. The script indicates that the real Lena survives, and her double takes the phosphorous grenade. After she destroys the Shimmer, the person who emerges is Lena, albeit irrevocably changed. Inside the lighthouse, her double retains the memory of loving Kane – it reaches for his body, an echo of Lena’s affection for Kane, as they are both consumed by flames.

“Of course, you don’t see the real thing when you’re doing it,” she said. “Even when you see the previsualizations and everything, it’s not quite what you’ve seen before. They’re sort of first-of-their kind monsters. So you do have to associate them with your own deepest fears as opposed to something you see.”

The tone of fearful wonder that Garland wanted reflected the sense that “a lot of things, if you saw them for the first time, would seem very strange. But we get used to it. We see trees every day. But if you came from another planet, a tree is a very strange thing. And that was kind of a wonderful way to go through the world.”

The film’s bizarre interbreeds of familiar animal and plant life “was something beautiful, something really wonderful that Alex brought to it. … There were these mutations that were so beautiful” in ways she recognized from her personal perspective.

Like the different species of flowers all growing from one plant, self-destruction is universal, a quality we share, but the ways we self-destruct are idiosyncratic. Like Ventress tells Lena: “Almost none of us commit suicide, and almost all of us self-destruct. [ . . . ] These aren’t decisions, they’re impulses. Coded into us, programmed into each cell.” And self-destruction can be as meaningless as destabilizing a friendship, a marriage. In one draft of the script, Lena explains to her students: “…we can describe cancer as a genetic mutation that causes unregulated cell growth. But genetic mutation is also the reason we exist. We wouldn’t have evolved from the single-cell organism from which we’re all derived. I think it’s partly why cancer frightens us. It doesn’t just hurt us, and kill us. It changes us.”

“Some of the most beautiful things in my life are mutations,” she said. “They’re mutated objects or emotions. You know that there is something that can be grotesque or might be beautiful because of that alteration. And sometimes it’s both. That was a really special thing that he brought up.”

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Noting that some of the past year’s most acclaimed hit films have featured complex female leads, Portman said she’s waiting for a time when putting women in major roles becomes routine.

Straight to Netflix is a concept that will change – there are plenty of these films in our best movies on Netflix list – but for now it’s just confusing people. You have some who see a Netflix-only movie as something that utilises as a brave new distribution model that bypasses the entrenched, archaic release schedule that cinemas adhere to. For others it’s just a place where movies that are certain for a critical bashing will be seen no matter what. 

“It’s still at a stage where there’s still not enough representation in film of women and particularly of women of color,” she said, echoing her subtle swipe at the all-male director nominees as a presenter at the Golden Globes. “I hope it gets better and better. That’s what we’re all trying to do with our work, and hopefully we can get other people to do with their work, as well.”

Her co-stars include Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Swedish actress Tuva Novotny. Working in an international, multiracial cast “with all these incredible women was really exciting,” she said. “It was completely unusual and it’s unfortunately a very rare experience.”

Annihilation may not be seen as mainstream enough for Netflix to promote wholeheartedly. Fine, if that’s the thinking, but it’s precisely these sorts of movies that make Netflix such a powerful platform. Currently Annihilation’s success is relying on word of mouth, much like many Netflix movies currently on its service. 

While it was challenging moving through the heat in military gear, “we all became really close and are still really good friends.”

This is a luxury that cinemas just don’t have – they have to capture lightning in a bottle within a tight schedule, something that unfortunately didnt happen with Annihilations US cinema run. Netflix has time to build something but that shouldnt stop it from doing something interesting and exciting on day one.

The film is based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, who later made it the beginning of a trilogy. That opens the possibility that Portman may be gearing up for a sequel.

Netflix has a very fixable problem. It’s got the content – you just have to look at Okja, the two Creep movies and Gerald’s Game – but it still doesn’t quite understand how to shout about it. It needs to do this, though, if it really wants to be the future of how we watch movies. 

“I’m sure,” she said, “depending on how much people enjoy the movie!”

Exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure, its an achievement painfully deserving of the exposure its not getting in UK cinemas. The films imagery – rich, dreamlike, Venus-fly-trap disturbing – deserves the biggest screen you can find to watch it on, not an iPad propped on a pillow.

For Alex Garland, its in every way a step forward from 2015s Ex Machina, the cerebral thriller about artificial intelligence that formally marked his directorial debut, following his boldly imagined script for Danny Boyles Sunshine (2007) and uncredited supervision of Dredd (2012). As in all those films, the world-building and idea-building of Annihilation go hand in hand; more than any of them, this one makes us wait to grasp its deadly logic in full.

Jeff Vandermeers source book, the first part of his much-ballyhooed Southern Reach Trilogy, has shape-shifted slightly in Garlands hands: there are five women, not four, entering the mysterious quarantine zone called Area X, and now they have names.

An anomaly called the Shimmer, ever-enlarging, and threatening to mutate natures DNA coding into previously unimaginable hybrid forms, has thus far swallowed up every expedition sent in to investigate, with only one known survivor: a soldier called Kane (Oscar Isaac), who vanished for a full year, presumed dead by his biologist wife Lena (Natalie Portman), only to return to her door like a haunted Odysseus.

One and only one of Lenas crew-mates, an aloof psychologist called Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), knows of this marital connection, which is the entire reason for Lenas going along: she hopes that data brought back from the trek may enable her husbands stricken, cancerous condition to be cured in some way.

The choice of Kane – the name of John Hurts character from Alien – is clearly telling. Physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez) and geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) round out this intrepid quintet, who find themselves disoriented the moment they step through the Shimmers purplish, oil-on-water haze, losing instant track of time and unsure of their bearings.

Proof that Vandermeers most unexpected inspiration might be Virginia Woolf, their destination is a lighthouse along a stretch of beach, from which the Shimmer first seems to have emanated. Every step towards it brings mutations, paranoia and a general erosion of solid reality. Like the adventurers wandering through the Zone in Tarkovskys forbidding Stalker, or indeed the cosmonauts bewitched by a mysterious ocean planet in Solaris, they lose their grip.

But the film certainly doesnt. Garland has a rock-solid grasp of how flexible his genre template can be, but also when an audience needs to be jolted out of reverie, say by the sudden attack of a crocodile equipped with a complete set of sharks teeth.

The visual effects, by the team which won an Oscar for Ex Machina, are sublimely distinctive, but also varied. There are horrors in store to rival anything in Carpenters The Thing, but also playful surrealist touches that Lewis Carroll would have taken to heart, like the flowers entwining themselves inquisitively into humanoid form.

Camcorder footage from Kanes previous expedition is found, and only sows panic among the group, some of whom refuse to believe what theyre seeing; later, in a horrific coup of voice imitation, they will wrongly believe what theyre hearing, too.

Portmans high-tension acting, her inability to relax, suits the material down to the ground. Its one of her best performances, moving through credible grief and bewilderment, but facing up bullishly to her fears by the end, and finding some kind of exhausted resolve to interrogate them.

The last half-hour of screen time is a what-the-heck-was-that marvel of risk-taking and trippy design, which still holds on to terra firma stakes – theres no cheats escape into a star-gate, but a blood-freezing vision of human consciousness under threat. Its an experience to plunge into, loud and large: Netflix and chilling will never have quite the same meaning again.

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