Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Josh Danford, Sonoya Mizuno, Honey Holmes, David Gyasi, Benedict Wong
Directed by Alex Garland
Writer-director Alex Garland’s Annihilation is simultaneously beautiful and disturbing. The science fiction-horror hybrid based on Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy is so next level that you’ll immediately want to watch it again. After making his directorial debut with the 2015 sci-fi film Ex Machina and writing Danny Boyle’s zombie thriller 28 Days Later, it’s evident that Garland was the right choice to tackle the award-winning novels. Shades of Kubrick and Cronenberg are on display along with a refreshing all-female squadron who enter “The Shimmer” to do what the boys couldn’t.
Women are always your best bet when facing a lethal threat in a sci-fi or horror film. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) proved to be a formidable opponent to that nasty Xenomorph in Alien while Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) held her own against the evil Michael Meyers in Halloween. You need more proof? Who was the toughest marine in James Cameron’s Aliens? That’s right, Private Vasquez played by Jenette Goldstein!
When a meteor strikes a lighthouse on the coast of Florida the area around it becomes contaminated. The flora and fauna begin to mutate while crystal-like trees materialize. The area, nicknamed The Shimmer, is surrounded by a huge wall that resembles the whirling hues of color you would see when blowing bubbles. Once inside the affected area, all communication devices cease to function, and a compass will just continue to spin. Think of The Shimmer as a land-based version of the Bermuda Triangle.
Natalie Portman plays a biologist named Lena who teaches at Johns Hopkins University after spending seven years in the military. Her husband Sgt. Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for over a year after going on a special ops mission. For six months Lena tried to get answers from the military about her husband’s mission and location but eventually, she gave up. Out of the blue Kane mysteriously shows up looking dazed and confused. When he begins to spew blood Lena calls 911 but before they can reach the hospital the ambulance is intercepted by military officials and the two are whisked off to a location near The Shimmer called Area X.
As it turns out Kane is the only person to ever make it out of The Shimmer, his men unaccounted for and now he lies in a comatose state. Dr. Ventress (a very good Jennifer Jason Leigh) catches Lena up to speed on the quickly expanding phenomena. After learning that Dr. Ventress is leading an all-female expedition into The Shimmer to find the missing men and get answers, Lena volunteers to go along. The two of them are joined by anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson).
Armed with weapons, survival gear, and research equipment the five women enter the mystifying national park that continues to be consumed by The Shimmer. Once inside the women encounter both frightening creatures and dazzling bursts of color that seem to sprout from the vegetation. They also become disoriented and lose track of time. It’s a surreal experience comparable to an acid trip that only gets stranger the deeper they go.
Garland loves to make his audience question what they are seeing but the filmmaker doesn’t rely on the stunning visuals to pass the time. At one point the film becomes a female version of Predator and there are some real frights to keep you on the edge. Part of the fun is not knowing what to expect next inside this unworldly dimension. Rob Hardy's cinematography is dazzling at times and the night shots provide just the right amount of light to offer clues about what lurks around in the darkness. Shades of Alien and Invasion of the Body Snatchers surface throughout the film that keeps you engrossed for the 115 minutes. Much of the action that takes place inside The Shimmer comes in the form of flashbacks as Portman is grilled about her experience in scenes that recall Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.
The film’s strong point is not the special effects or the secrets that materialize from this mysterious world it’s the five actresses who deliver first-rate performances. The more we get to know these women the more it becomes evident that they are all damaged in one form or another. Their weaknesses provide their strength and let’s face it men and women react differently. This film only works with a female cast. I can imagine a very different outcome if we were watching a group of men exploring this strange phenomenon. Remember the guys went first and only one of them made it back out.
Garland has emerged as a major player in the science fiction arena after making his stunning debut with the Alicia Vikander A.I. film Ex Machina. In that film and Annihilation, we can’t keep our eyes off the fascinating scenery but it’s the actor’s performances that drive both films. The writer-director also penned the sci-fi thriller Sunshine for Danny Boyle.
The score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow is almost as intriguing as the rest of the film. Musical notes become muted as they begin to resemble vocal patterns as if The Shimmer is trying to communicate with us. Annihilation is a remarkable film that may require a second viewing to fully absorb all its rewards.