by Tyler Jennes
Let’s be honest here – coming right off of Mute, any sci-fi film would’ve seemed great by comparison. I am thankful that we’re living in a time where hard sci-fi films are becoming more accepted. So, even when you have the occasional misfire, you’ll still have recent works like Arrival, Interstellar, and Ex Machina showing off the very best of the genre. When I heard that Ex Machina writer-director, Alex Garland, was helming this film, I couldn’t help but raise my expectations. Garland has proven his understanding of science fiction on multiple occasions, and, with Ex Machina, he showed his strengths to not just be in the written form, but in visual as well, as the film took home an Academy Award for its visual effects. Now, with this and Annihilation under his belt, I can safely say that Garland is one of the finest sci-fi directors working today.
Towards the beginning of this film, the abnormal region known as ‘The Shimmer’ is described by two characters with the words “dreamlike,” “nightmarish,” and “beautiful.” This is just about how I’d label the film itself. Not only does the film employ gorgeous visuals throughout the story, but the sound design is something that can only be fully appreciated in a theater setting. This is a film where atmosphere reigns king with just as much tension coming from the unseen as the seen itself. Tonally, an apt comparison to this film can be found in the sci-fi works of Andrei Tarkovsky, who also told the story of multiple people exploring an anomalous region whilst questioning the state of human nature in Stalker. The film has a quality to it that is rarely seen today – patience; whether it’s in the long, wide shots of the characters exploring the mutated forestry of The Shimmer, or in the more horror-oriented scenes where tension is slowly eked out to build even more impact. So, if there was one single part to be gleaned from this film, it’s the pacing.
Annihilation, as a whole, is not a horror film, but still manages to be more horrifying than the majority of actual horror films. Due to The Shimmer’s effect on its inhabitants, we’re treated to some downright disturbing imagery in the form of blood-curdling body horror, the likes of which has rarely been seen since that of The Thing. One scene in particular involving our main characters fending for their lives against a Lovecraftian creature shows just how far Garland is willing to go in terms of nightmare fuel. And yet, for every scene of blood and gore, there’s one of calm and serenity. The fact that the main characters are all scientists attempting to figure out the source of The Shimmer gives the audience the opportunity to discover the wonders of the setting along with the characters.
What’s refreshing about the protagonist of this film is that she is a fundamentally flawed person, but not a flawed character. What I mean is that the fact that she is a flawed person is integral to the narrative. It’s a decision made by Garland that logically fits into the story, especially towards its conclusion. This just makes me thankful that producer Scott Rudin had the good sense to stick up for Garland when the studio requested that he make the character “more likeable.” Another studio request was that Garland should have made the story less intellectual and complicated. The fact that studios are unwilling to respect the intelligence of their audiences boggles my mind and makes me relieved that Rudin sided with Garland’s vision. The fact that the film doesn’t dumb itself down and answer every question presented serves to its benefit, as I’ve seen multiple theories and speculations about the story that have only heightened my appreciation of it.
In the end, however, it doesn’t really matter if every plot thread is properly resolved, but rather the emotional reaction you have to the film. In Garland’s own words, he claims to have adapted the Jeff VanderMeer novel based on the emotions he got from the text rather than directly adapting it. Due to the fact that the film is, at its core, about the self-destructive nature of humanity, it’s going to be received differently from person to person. It’s going to depend on if you as a viewer like to have a linear and direct narrative, or if you’re willing to accept one that’s more poetic and unconventional. The fact that the film is structured in such a way makes logical sense given the content and there are more than a few subtle details that are unraveled as the story progresses. I for one think that this film is well worth giving a chance and highly recommended to be seen on the biggest screen and best sound system possible.
4.5 out of 5 stars