Film Critic Matt Taylor is enamoured with Annihilation, the second directorial effort from Alex Garland, and Netflix’s latest exclusive
Earlier this year, I reviewed Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. In my closing words I said that if we saw one better film for the rest of the year, we were in for a real treat. That treat is here: it takes the form of Alex Garland’s Annihilation, and it stands as one of the most ambitious, profound, affecting, and gorgeous pieces of science fiction this century.
It’s based on Jeff Vandermeer’s novel of the same name, the first of his Southern Reach trilogy (though Garland has said he has ‘zero plans’ to adapt the second and third books to film), and follows a team of scientists making their way into what’s been dubbed ‘The Shimmer’, a zone of unknown quantity and origin. After three years of expeditions inside, only one person has ever made it out alive. For fear of revealing too much that’s all I’ll give away, but suffice it to say that what follows is nothing short of a masterpiece of modern cinema.
But what exactly is it that makes Annihilation so good? That’s a tricky question to answer. What’s perhaps most remarkable about it is the way it makes you feel; we’re simultaneously terrified and in awe of what we see before us, constantly on edge from the film’s very first frame. Its effect in this way is down to a combination of factors; above all are the film’s direction, its cinematography, and its score – all of which are some of the best in years. The music composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is awe-inspiring, like Blade Runner dialled up to eleven. In some scenes it’s so grand as to perfectly suit what we’re seeing, and in others it puts us on edge with ease; even an acoustic guitar becomes an instrument of terror. The film is also one of the best-looking movies this decade, perhaps ever, and equal credit is due to both DoP Rob Hardy and all special/visual effects supervisors. Garland’s vision is fantastically realised in every frame. The Shimmer itself is particularly gorgeous, looking like a dome of oil on water, and the creatures within it are equally fascinating and terrifying. They’re recognisable yet changed in unnerving ways (the latter of the two we see is particularly unsettling), and they make for some suitably tense scenes. It’s beautifully shot, too; the rainbow colours of The Shimmer are used to gorgeous effect towards the film’s end, leaving us both in awe and wary of what we’re seeing in a similar way to Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.
The performances are solid as well; the cast is led by Natalie Portman, and also includes Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac and Benedict Wong. Portman in particular is on top form; her character Lena is very much the film’s heart – we open and close with her, and quickly learn her motives for wanting to enter The Shimmer. This, however, doesn’t play out as expected, and is fascinating to watch. Her story allows Garland to showcase the same control of information that he used so well in his debut feature Ex Machina; his use of flashbacks and flash-forwards slowly drip-feed us information to better understand Lena and her relationship to her husband, a key character.
Speaking of Garland’s abilities, his direction is flawless throughout. This is the work of a man who knows and cares extremely for his craft; he’s so in control of everything he puts before our eyes. He knows he has a smart enough audience to keep up with what he’s doing, so he pulls no punches – and while that’s admirable to see and mind-boggling to watch, it’s something that inadvertently leads to the film’s only problem: that it’s on Netflix. Allow me to elaborate: Annihilation was made to be seen on the silver screen. It was all set to be distributed worldwide by Paramount when, after a poorly received test screening, financier David Ellison was concerned that the film was too intellectual and complicated for it to have any mainstream appeal, and demanded that changes be made to both the ending and the character of Lena. Producer Scott Rudin refused, siding with Garland on the dispute, which resulted in a deal being made with Netflix: Paramount would distribute in the US and China, and Netflix the rest of the world. While this does mean it potentially reaches a wider audience, it’s not the format the film was made for. Granted it’s still one of the best sci-fi movies this century, but I can’t help feeling it would have been so much better on the big screen.
Verdict: Beautifully haunting and profoundly unsettling, Annihilation is a visceral, affecting masterpiece of science fiction that cements Alex Garland as one of the greatest directors working in the industry today. Just please don’t watch it on your phone.