If I could describe “Annihilation” in six words it would be “The most beautiful nightmare ever created”. When I call it a nightmare, I do not refer to it in a negative sense, rather that of a mild psychedelic trance. The omnipresent sensation that something is off and the paranoia that comes with that are just small aspects of a truly thoughtful and suspenseful ride provided to the viewer by the filmmakers. Frankly, I struggle to find the appropriate words to totally encapsulate the feeling the film radiates so I have to settle with my original phrase and hope you simply understand.
“Annihilation” follows the story of Lena, a former soldier in the army and a current biologist. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), goes missing on a covert ops mission, and after a year, he returns mysteriously, with his memory incomplete and his health failing. Upon his return, the government quarantines Kane, explaining that they lost contact with his unit several months ago and he is the only one to return. Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the leader of an expedition recruits Lena to explore the phenomenon that Kane was exploring on his mission, called the Shimmer. They are joined by, the paramedic, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), the physicist, Cass (Tuva Novotny), and the anthropologist, Josie (Tessa Thompson). The group then enters this anomaly that can only be described as a reality mysteriously adjacent to our own. It is part of our world but things are just slightly off enough to make everyone feel out of place. It is both dangerous and alluring.
The Shimmer is the focal point of the film. What essentially looks a bubble of glittering scum that resembles that of oil in water or a thin sheet of dish soap, the Shimmer is a sort of wonderland where the rules of nature skew off into a logical but unknown direction. The filmmakers make great use of optical lens flares in order to create a more dreamlike sensation upon viewing. The landscapes are colorful and the environment seems like one with a rich bounty of untapped scientific discoveries, that if not for the ominous and ever-present danger, any person with even the slightest flicker of a free spirit within them would love to dive headfirst into and explore. Considering the suspenseful tone, the visual beauty of the setting creates a positive visceral reaction that makes the film appeal beyond the thrill of the script.
The lead role is essential to this story. Her competence as a scientist and soldier are necessary to make her actions believable, but that is only one aspect of her character. Natalie Portman does such an exceptional job portraying such ability all while simultaneously juggling the task of burying complex emotions. Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of her performance is not overselling any one emotion too much. At times, she may seem like she is being robotic, but in reality, she is playing someone who has so many feelings right beneath the surface. I often think Natalie is too smart for a lot of the roles she is cast in. It is not her fault she is genuinely as brilliant as she is, but there are occasions where you just feel like the material she works with is beneath her. But not in “Annihilation”. This film challenges her and you can tell she appreciates the challenge provided.
There are two other performances that are especially noteworthy. The first of which is Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of Kane. His role is relatively small, but he provides a mysterious introduction and point of reference for the effects of the Shimmer, as well as a necessary emotional connection for Lena to the consequences. And what little he does on screen is the kind of enticing that keeps your eyes focused, like a person whispering only to make you listen closer.
The second noteworthy supporting performance is attributed to Gina Rodriguez. Her role as the paranoid paramedic is what I consider to be the most realistic of any of those we see in the film. She displays the most apparent outward effects of the Shimmer, not physically but mentally. She wears her stress and distrust on her sleeves and in turn, becomes one of the two very specific dangers she herself warned about prior to entering the Shimmer.
The final scene, which takes place at the lighthouse in the center of the Shimmer is one of the most aesthetically pleasing scenes I have witnessed in any film. The dialogue is minimal and everything is communicated with a powerful score that hits like an emphatic punch from a heavyweight champion. The musical compositions used throughout the film are very understated until this moment. The sharp contrast makes this moment stand out all the more. The visuals are the result of some of the finest CGI and a minimalist approach to create the most haunting of climaxes. I believe it is an understatement to describe this moment as terrifyingly beautiful.
An aspect of this film that I believe could be underappreciated is the fact that there is no antagonist. Films that have such potential, such as this, can choke and give into easy tropes by providing the hero with a face of opposition. It is an easy method that creates simplicity but often dilutes the message the film was trying to build up because having an “us versus them” narrative is easier to create. “Annihilation” choosing to omit this adds to the power of the Shimmer. The dangers might not have a face, as audiences are used to, but the element of mystery is enhanced as a result.
This movie has elements of science fiction and adventure, genres have hackneyed tropes that can lay traps that force films to fall into mediocrity. Luckily, “Annihilation” takes a very intimate approach to the danger and to the characters. World-threatening stakes do not need computer-generated leviathans shooting lasers from the sky to translate danger. It does a beautiful job communicating consequences and danger by using a minimalist approach. It would be refreshing for more films to follow in its footsteps.
I would give “Annihilation” an ethereal 9.0 out of 10
Directed by: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, Tuva Novotny
Runtime: 1 hour 55 Minutes