Director: Alex Garland
Stars: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson
Alex Garland’s second (credited) feature as director is the first true victim of what I’m coming to think of as The Netflix Problem. Produced by Paramount, who are increasingly showing their cowardice toward new and original concepts, the film has been granted a scant theatrical release in the US and unceremoniously dumped straight onto the streaming giant elsewhere, falsely equating it in quality with pap like The Cloverfield Paradox or The Outsider.
This level of disrespect to not only Garland’s work but the future of great, inspirational cinematic experiences should shame all involved. The overriding impression being vaunted is that the quality or content of the work is immaterial. One product is as good as another so long as it accrues revenue.
This isn’t a new position for a Hollywood studio to take, but its the most transparent example of recent times. The tragedy of it stings all the more because Garland’s film is exceptional. It deserves the venerated darkness of the movie theatre.
It asks for the opportunity to consume you.
Adapted from the opening of a trilogy by novelist Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation stars Natalie Portman as Lena, an academic and former army soldier whose husband – also army – hasn’t been seen for a year. She has assumed him K.I.A. When he reappears and falls into dire health just as suddenly, Lena discovers a shard of the truth; he was sent on a mission into an ever-growing area of swampland that is being systematically taken over by an advancing alien biosphere nicknamed ‘The Shimmer’. The middle of this phenomenon is a lighthouse; the site of an extraterrestrial collision. Insinuating herself into the investigating teams, Lena opts in to a new mission to reach the centre.
What follows is a dreamlike journey into a kaleidoscopic heart of darkness. Apocalypse Now feels like a reference point here, but only one in a myriad of examples caught in Garland’s swirl. Excitingly, the gender roles are reversed; it’s an all-female team, while the sensational flora and fauna discovered by the team conjure imagery found in everything from The Last Of Us to Avatar by way of J.G. Ballard’s novel The Crystal World.
Ballard wrote a clutch of ecological apocalypses, and Annihilation feels like it could readily be one of them. Lena and her companions find themselves in a familiar world that is being terraformed into the extraordinary. This process isn’t malevolent, it is merely unearthly. It is a reaction. The terrestrial meeting the extra-terrestrial and creating something new, something other.
Another key text which echoes in Garland’s film is Tarkovsky’s seminal sci-fi Stalker, in which three men explore an alien realm. Again, we’re witnessing a gender realignment, but the philosophical questions raised throughout this odyssey are as potent. Lena discovers that the alien presence is fundamentally changing the genetic make-up of everything it comes into contact with; including them. Identity itself starts breaking down. Becoming one with nature has rarely seemed so deadly.
And while Garland’s film owes much to the above mentioned sci-fi forbearers, it stands tall as an equal to any of them. This is a methodically paced daydream of a film with a colour palette as dazzling as the rainbows caught in a gasoline pool. It is an ideas factory, one that attempts to weave several thematic ideas together into a coherent narrative whole. It does this, but without feeling mechanical. Garland’s approach feels more organic, more fluid. He takes his time and doesn’t discard life easily. People may well die here (the film acknowledges this upfront), but any losses will be keenly felt. Life is precious in Annihilation. Every life.
While in the main this manifests as an exotic journey into a wildly imaginative everglade (one not without its share of scary monsters to fear), little on the journey fully prepares you for the audio/visual assault of the third act; as courageous and psychedelic an attempt to manifest the alien as has been attempted this side of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Jupiter And Beyond The Infinite’ sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey fifty years ago. Sounds like hyperbole? Just watch it. What makes this all the more impressive is its ability to carry not just cerebral weight but to also pack an emotional punch thanks to Garland’s investment in character.
Portman is great in the lead, but she is ably supported on all sides in an ensemble effort. Her coupling with Oscar Isaac potentially amounts to the hottest pairing in 21st century film. Fun as it is to see these two in flashbacks rollicking under the duvet, the relationships that develop between the women reward the most. Jennifer Jason Leigh is superbly cast as their nominal leader Dr. Ventress (she inhabits the notion of self-destruction as natural impulse floated by Lena in a much earlier scene), while Tessa Thompson shows striking vulnerability and openness in contrast to her brash scene-stealing exploits throughout Thor: Ragnarok.
Garland’s last, Ex Machina, picked up the best VFX Oscar a couple of years back. Could Annihilation follow suit next year? It seems crazy to start such speculation now, but a case could be made. For this reason alone its a crime to think that a majority of people will experience this film at home on their flat-screen TVs (or god forbid on their cellphones), where the awesome soundscapes provided by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury will struggle to manifest the desired effect. But what’s robbed of the film isn’t just the opportunity to flex its abundant technical achievements; the chance to appreciate its self-styled gravitas and reverence has also been significantly dulled.
Annihilation isn’t a small screen experience. It deserves better. But seeing as this is what we’ll have to get used to now, Netflix will need to seriously up their game if this is the standard to aspire to. Here’s hoping Paramount and co. show a little integrity and backbone in the future and put films of this caliber where they ought to be seen; in your local cinema.