While superhero movies have captured all the hype and box office receipts in recent years, science fiction films have quietly enjoyed a resurgence of their own. The last few years has seen a decent number of science fiction films landing at the cinema, most of them very good high quality affairs.
You can go ahead and add ANNIHILATION (2018) to that list.
ANNIHILATION was written and directed by Alex Garland, the man who also wrote and directed EX MACHINA (2014), one of those recent high quality science fiction flicks, a thought-provoking thriller about artificial intelligence. Here in ANNIHILATION, Garland takes on a topic that is rather innovative and original.
In ANNIHILATION, biologist and college professor Lena (Natalie Portman) is dealing with the absence of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), an army officer who’s been missing in action for over a year. One night, Kane returns home, but he’s different, distant, but before Lena can find out why, Kane becomes violently ill. She rushes him to the hospital, but before they can get there, the ambulance is intercepted by the military, and both Kane and Lena are extracted from the vehicle.
When Lena awakes, she finds herself being questioned by a psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Lena learns the truth of her husband’s mission, that he and his unit had been sent in to investigate a mysterious area called the “Shimmer.” Numerous parties had been sent in, and none had returned, until Kane.
When Lena learns that Dr. Ventress is leading an all female team— a scientific decision because so far the investigators had all been male and they had all failed— into the Shimmer, she decides to join them, believing she owes it to her husband to learn what happened to him and what exactly is going on inside the bizarre area.
The Shimmer began when an unknown object struck a lighthouse on the south coast of the United States, and afterwards the lighthouse began to emit an unusual aura which over the course of the year continued to grow, and Dr. Ventress predicts that unless it is stopped it will continue until it covers cities, states, and eventually, everywhere. The Shimmer looks like a huge oily wall which distorts one’s vision, and so you can’t really see beyond it. Those who have entered, have not returned, except, of course, for Kane.
When Lena and the all women team enter, they immediately realize that they have entered a place where the laws of nature have changed, and it’s up to them to find out how and why and to survive its hostile environment.
ANNIHILATION tells a fascinating tale that works on multiple levels. Sure, the thought-provoking science fiction ideas are there, in this case some innovative thinking involving refraction and DNA, but ANNIHILATION works even better as an adventure and a thriller.
There are some very exciting sequences here involving some frightening creatures which live inside the Shimmer, in particular an enormous crocodile and later an extremely intense sequence involving something that was once a bear. There are some definite edge-of-your seat moments in this one.
My favorite part though is the female cast. It’s a fresh take on a science fiction adventure tale like this to have the main players all be women.
Natalie Portman leads the way with a strong performance as Lena. She gets to express two sides of this character. There’s the cold, clinical biologist side, as she investigates the strange phenomena inside the Shimmer, and since Lena is ex-military, having spent several years in the army, we get to see her no-nonsense kick-ass side, as she takes on the formidable creatures inside this strange land. Portman excels at both.
I like Portman a lot, and it was fun to see her in this action role after her meticulous performance as Jackie Kennedy in JACKIE (2016).
Jennifer Jason Leigh is also excellent as Dr. Ventress. As the leader of the group, she is as tough as nails in her determination to reach the lighthouse in the hope of resolving this dilemma. While Leigh has enjoyed a long career, she’s turned in some particularly impressive supporting performances of late, including memorable roles in GOOD TIME (2017) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015).
The other three women are also notable. Tuva Novotny as Cass, Gina Rodriguez as Anya, and Tessa Thompson as Josie round out the cast in impressive fashion. Thompson was also excellent starring opposite Michael B. Jordan in CREED (2015).
And Oscar Isaac is effective as Kane, Lena’s husband who’s not quite the same once he comes home. Isaac also starred in Alex Garland’s previous science fiction flick, EX MACHINA, and he’s known now for his recurring role as Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies.
ANNIHILATION is not perfect. It’s slow at times, more so during its third act. Early on, when the audience is first learning about the Shimmer, the story is so engrossing that pacing is not a problem. But once we start to get answers, things slow down a bit as the film moves towards its conclusion.
The CGI effects are uneven. Some of the creatures look fearsome, while others look fake.
The story works if you don’t think about it a whole lot. I couldn’t help but think that if such an event were really happening, there’d be more of a military presence around the Shimmer. We’re led to believe that there is, but it’s not something we see much of. In fact, we see hardly anyone other than Dr. Ventress and her team.
Still, I enjoyed the screenplay by director Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. The dialogue is strong and the concepts explored in the story rather fascinating.
And the film looks stunning. The mind-boggling world inside the Shimmer contains some memorable cinematic images.
The whole film has a sort of LOST (2004-2010) vibe to it, and if you mix in a little bit of ZOO (2015-2017) with INTERSTELLAR (2014) and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (any version you’d like) you’ve got ANNIHILATION, a nice mix of edge-of-your-seat thrills and thought-provoking science fiction.
But its strongest attribute is its all-female team, which by far is the most refreshing part of this exciting fantasy adventure.