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.”
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.
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“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.
“I’m such a fan of Alex’s work both as a writer and a director,” Portman said.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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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.”
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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.
“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.
Josie tells Lena in a draft of the screenplay that she’s an astrophysicist whose focus is “the life-cycle of stars.” Lena asks, “And what is the life-cycle of stars?” Josie responds, “Long,” and Lena laughs and explains, “I do the life-cycle of cells. Short.” Josie shrugs and says, “Still a cycle.” The mysterious tattoo that Lena develops during her time in the Shimmer represents this cycle: an ouroboros. It signifies infinity, wholeness, two cells dividing, yin and yang, and echoes, like the Shimmer’s refractions. Anya first has the tattoo, which became part of Lena. And a soldier from a previous mission had the tattoo before her. Alchemists used the symbol of the ouroboros to represent integration of the conscious and the unconscious into the self, two halves of a whole. Jung wrote: “The integration of these opposing aspects of the personality is symbolized by the snake that bites its own tail, the ouroboros, another archetype. The ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite (i.e. of the shadow self). This feedback process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said that the ouroboros slays himself and brings himself to life again, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself.”
“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.”
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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.”
While it was challenging moving through the heat in military gear, “we all became really close and are still really good friends.”
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.
“I’m sure,” she said, “depending on how much people enjoy the movie!”
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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.