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[This story contains spoilers for Annihilation.]
After years of working solely as a writer (both a novelist and screenwriter), Alex Garland shifted into being a director in 2015 with his debut feature, Ex Machina, a chilly morality tale about how two men exploit the technology of artificial intelligence to subjugate women. The film received plaudits and decent box office. While other filmmakers would use success in an independent genre piece to step into the world of big-budget blockbusters, Garland has instead continued to follow in the footsteps of auteurist filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick with his second directorial effort, the disturbing Annihilation.
The setup of Annihilation is deceptively simple, hearkening back to other great sci-fi films like Alien and The Thing. A mysterious disaster zone known as the Shimmer has sprung up in the swamps of Florida and is slowly expanding; various soldiers on a series of missions have been sent into the Shimmer to detect its origin and motivations, but only one very ill man (Oscar Isaac) has returned. The film depicts the latest, and possibly final, mission, led by a brusque psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and also including a biologist (Natalie Portman), physicist (Tessa Thompson) and others. Once the team members enter the Shimmer, they find all sorts of fascinating, baffling and bizarre mutations between animal, plant and human — and that’s before they begin to worry that they’re losing their minds.
Ex Machina and Annihilation have some similarities in the broad strokes; both are moody sci-fi films with splashes of blood and horror, both are inspired in some respect by seminal examples of the genre from decades past, and both feature striking production design and special effects that conjure up unforgettable images. However, Annihilation, in spite of seeming somewhat self-contained like Ex Machina due to the main characters being isolated from the rest of the world for the majority of the film, is a more expansive story that delves far deeper into the lead characters’ psyches. There is, in some sense, the suggestion that the people entering the Shimmer are more prone to being subject to alien mutation because of their own broken pasts.
The ambition of Annihilation vastly exceeds that of Ex Machina. The boldness of Garland’s adaptation is strongest in its finale, when Portman’s character — driven to enter the Shimmer in the hopes of rescuing her husband (Isaac, playing the ill man who was able to exit the Shimmer) — travels to the center of the zone and encounters an alien intelligence that creates a duplicate of her body, mimicking her movement and attempting to attack her. This sequence, which plays out with a booming soundtrack and no dialogue, culminates in an odd fight sequence between Portman and her faceless, feature-less alien mirror image. The setpiece begins with a miniature light show of cosmic beauty that recalls the climax of 2001, in which the lead human is essentially sent through a wormhole by an unseen extraterrestrial intelligence.
Enough elements in Annihilation don’t quite fit with each other, so it’s not quite as ambitious on the whole as Kubrick’s masterpiece of science fiction. For one, the story is structured around a maddening and eventually useless in medias res device in which Portman’s character Lena speaks to a man wearing a radiation suit after the mission has ended. Thus, for all of the unnerving and spooky imagery, there is still the knowledge that Lena will progress much further than her compatriots. But while that framing device and its conclusion may be somewhat disappointing, it’s only because the movie around that device is so remarkable and seemingly singular, while recalling classic and recent pinnacles of cinematic science fiction, from the aforementioned 2001 to 2013’s Under the Skin. The very end may be something of a letdown precisely because the rest of this movie is so fascinating to behold, especially since it’s from a major studio and not a scrappy independent distributor.
When Paramount Pictures sold off the international rights to Annihilation to Netflix, the subtext was that the studio might have been cutting its potential losses with the cerebral science-fiction journey. While that may end up being true — opening a week after Black Panther and having more than a few flourishes that owe a debt to 2001: A Space Odyssey means this film probably won’t be a huge hit — the movie that was greenlit is still a remarkably effective genre piece that deserves greater attention. Alex Garland has stepped up his game from Ex Machina to Annihilation, leaping well beyond the gender politics of the former to a broader, more ambitious and more expansive film with genuinely haunting imagery. Here’s a film that suggests a true auteur in the making.
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