Science based films tend to do either one of two things: bog the viewer down with overly complicated science to the point of confusion and boredom; or they coddle the audience so much it almost becomes an insult to the viewer's intelligence. Finding a balance between the two is key to a successful science fiction flick. Alex Garland's latest film, Annihilation, is able to find that balance. Albeit the writing is not perfect, Garland presents a film with solid direction, a great performance from its lead and supporting cast, and fascinating effects.
Across the board the acting is great. Standouts include Portman, Isaac, Leigh and Rodriguez. Rodriguez starts by being charismatic team player who is tough but vulnerable. As the team makes their way through the Shimmer she slowly begins to become paranoid. Without spoiling, there is a scene where her paranoia comes to a head and PW brings the intensity. She is fierce and because of the context it becomes easy for the audience to understand her reasoning. This scene is one of the best of the film in terms of this character and action. Another supporting role worth mentioning is Leigh. Her character is static but with little to no backstory, but it works. From the start she is in it for herself (either her job, or personal reasons). Leigh's nothing to lose portrayal of Dr. Ventress is enigmatic—audiences never know her exact motive, which lends itself to the unknown of the Shimmer. Isaac, who is somewhere between supporting and a lead, has a presence throughout the movie even when not on screen. He plays his role with stoicism. He ranges from the loving, hurt husband to the curious, focused soldier seamlessly. At the head of the picture is Portman and she is able to carry this film through her performance. When the movie starts Potman’s character appears drained as a grieving widow. As the film progresses Portman channels her guilt and grief to become the strong soldier she once was. She is troubled throughout which viewers only understand through flashbacks. The relationship between Portman and Issac feels genuine. The moment they are in bed together feels vuyeristic as the viewer sees the intimate moment. Potman’s character motivation is it always clear, but that has more to do with the writing than it does her performance.
Garland's directing is done well. The shots and performances all work. His writing on the other hand is not as tight. The ending felt rushed. As soon as the characters get to their destination shit hits then fan then it is over just as quickly. And although Leigh gave a great performance, her character never gets enough of an arc. She gets hints of intrigue, but it does not fully develop. While watching this movie, it is easy to see how it can have numerous interpretations. As a viewer things do not always need to be completely explained (in fact there were some greatly appreciated subtleties), but it does need to make some sense. The parts which do not add up are difficult to discuss without spoiling it. Just know there are parts of the ending that (even in a high concept film) do not come together all the way. Part of the writing Gardland is successful in is the way he is able to draw the viewer in. He takes something terrifying and makes it inviting in a way that is chilling. The Shimmer is gorgeous and mysterious, and he makes audiences want to know more. Aiding in the allure of the Shimmer is the way it looks.
Graphically, Annihilation is mesmerizing. There is so much detail. A couple standout scenes are when Portman is looking out the window of military facility—in the reflection the Shimmer area is faintly visible. Another graphic element worth mentioning is the eyes. There are several shots of eyes close-up and they often have something going on within them—a reflection, shifting colors, etcetera, and each one looks brilliant. Aside from the visual effects, there are also great gore effects. Again, difficult to discuss without spoiling, but there are two scenes which are cringeworthy in the best way. The first is when a characters stomach is cut open, and nothing is left out. The other is when a character gets a body part torn off by the terrifying mutant bear known as Homerton on set. Both take place during the second act, and it is that act which gives the film horror elements.
What is Annihilation actually about? On the surface, the Shimmer and what is inside. Underneath it is about self-reflection and looking beyond the surface. It talks about humanity's self-destructive nature, and how that may or may not be a bad thing. What Annihilation does is lets the audience think. So often a movie will spoon feed viewers all the answers or dumb things down to get concepts across. Annihilation says what is going on and gives onlookers a chance to dissect it and piece it together for themselves. Yes, there are parts that could use more clarification, but the end result is something fresh, beautiful and at time ambiguous. With the solid performances, strong direction, and stunningly eerie effects Annihilation is a film people will be analyzing for years.
Further Viewing: Ex Machina — Another interesting take on sci-fi from Garland, staring Oscar Issac.