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Rainbow warrior
Alex Garland first came to my attention with his novel The Beach but it was only after his official directorial debut with the sublime Ex Machina, did I sit up. Camus crosses through the shimmer and reviews Netflix’s recent acquisition, ANNIHILATION...
 
  "Small and big screen are closely related, but you frame shots differently and have a different approach to sound, music and effects." But surely he has enjoyed films at home that he didn’t get to see at the cinema? "Absolutely true." So people will appreciate it? "I hope so. But I do know that when the team that made Annihilation were working out the ending, all conversations were about structuring it for an immersive experience that a big screen would be the most natural for."
  A suitably miffed Alex Garland, writer/director of Annihilation after
realising that Paramount had sold the film to the small screen*

 

Netflix has muddied the distribution waters, no question. After the Super Bowl coup of suddenly advertising a science fiction horror film with the tacked on 'Cloverfield' title (and a tacked on Cloverfield monster) ready to watch as soon as the whistle went, we had entered into a new cinematic era. The usual put down of 'straight to video' needed a 21st century equivalent. I'm not saying that Netflix has earned such a damning reputation considering that almost all TV I am watching these days seems to have either the static, white noise of HBO before the main event or the white, 3D popping Netflix title settling in to a 2D red. Obviously there are unknown, back-scratching deals taking place between the majors and the minors and God knows if The Cloverfield Paradox made any money given its unique birth. It was generally seen as artistically unsuccessful and pays too much attention to the space station cliché drama. It has its moments but it is generally underwhelming and the last shot… sigh. Still, we have higher hopes for Annihilation, a science fiction film about as far from the tired tropes of Paradox than it is possible to be. Say what you like and react how you like to this extraordinary film, it's an eminently worthy, artistic effort.

Annihilation

A meteorite of extraterrestrial origin (one assumes) streaks through the atmosphere. Forty minutes drive from where I am writing this, this meteorite lands on an immense, endless beach. I wonder how much the filmmakers had to pay for permission to film there? I only ask because my film crew and I were once thrown off it thinking it was public land. The object smashes into a lighthouse that I'm fairly sure isn't part of Norfolk's Holkham beach, and a swirly bubble coloured wall starts to form, emanating from the crash site… Lena, Natalie Portman, is teaching a biology class (pretty sure we're supposed to be paying attention as the cells divide and multiply). A colleague makes a pass and we realise she's still grieving for her lost husband, a Marine who never returned from his last top-secret mission. When he does suddenly appear, our modern film audience's antennae twitch wildly. Not only is he monosyllabic and has no memory of almost anything, he suddenly starts having a seizure. It's only then I crack a rueful smile at his character's name. Kane. I'd never be a Kane in a science fiction film. Played by Oscar Isaac, playful, warm and loving in flashback, he's soon in an ambulance tearing down the road convulsing enough for me to half expect starting the Giger counter but the clicks subside and the ambulance is suddenly pulled over by one assumes government agents who take everybody away to a building with a great view of the anomaly that is now enormous (it's been three years). It looks like a bubble from God's shampoo. It manages to give the environment it covers a rainbow sheen that for my money is quite unique in cinematic sights.

Now the movie takes a very subtle turn. We are introduced to five women, one of whom seems to be in charge, Jennifer Jason-Leigh as Dr. Ventress. Together with Lena, there are three more women with their own specialisations and all five are going into the shimmer to figure out what it is, why teams never made it out and how it can be stopped before its growth places the planet in danger. Now, if you are an enlightened soul, it may not be surprising to you but the film is now being carried by an all female cast and each plays their disintegration inside the shimmer with idiosyncratic subtlety. We do not miss men at all. Yes, there's Oscar in the flashbacks and Benedict Wong as the Hazmat suited interrogator after-the-event but this is Portman's show and she's more than up to it. Each character is affected by their exposure to the shimmer in very personal ways. It's as if the flaws in these characters are intensified as the rogue cells enter their bodies and start diluting the pure human DNA. We're not talking The Thing like mutation though there are mutated creatures our intrepid team take on. It's more like the characters' inner desires and fears are manifested by their physical changes.

Annihilation

There are well timed shocks and a moment of nauseating body horror which caught me off guard as I slipped down some pasta in sweet chilli sauce, not the food to be eating watching this particular scene but most of the horror is cerebral (Hollywood execs not so keen on that word, I suspect). It is about what it may feel like not to be you anymore and wondering what your eroding identity is giving way to. In a book of short stories, Sum by David Eagleman, given a mighty boost in 2009 after a Stephen Fry tweet, there's a story called Metamorphosis and it's a direct parallel to the trials faced by the characters in Annihilation.  From memory, a man gets his wish to become a horse because of his human judgement on how idyllic it would be to live as a creature without a care in the world. Halfway through the transformation he suddenly realises with no little panic, that his mind will be an equine mind and will not experience the human simplicity he imagined the change would promote. He will inherit all the worries and angst of a pack animal programmed to respond to the slightest change of environment as something potentially deadly. Welcome to the relaxing world of being a horse. There're no real monsters to defeat in the shimmer's ethereal and beautiful environments. It's the refractive element of the barrier itself that intensifies the effect on the women. So while the climax, surreal, beautiful and somewhat perplexing is a matter of life and death, it's somehow more than that. There are lots of narrative elements to chew on and like the effect of quite a few films in the last six months, there are many conversations to be kick-started after the end credits.

Annihilation is a beautifully made science fiction horror film, which is in turn, fascinating, scary, thought-provoking and at times good enough to eat.

 


* https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/alex-garland-interview-new-film-annihilation-released-netflix-5bk9xj856

Annihilation poster
Annihilation

UK/USA 2018
115 mins
directed by
Alex Garland
produced by
Eli Bush
Andrew Macdonald
Allon Reich
Scott Rudin
written by
Alex Garland
based on the novel by
Jeff VanderMeer
cinematography
Rob Hardy
editing
Barney Pilling
music
Geoff Barrow
Ben Salisbury
production design
Mark Digby
starring
Natalie Portman
Benedict Wong
Sonoya Mizuno
David Gyasi
Oscar Isaac
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Gina Rodriguez

UK distributor
Netflix
UK release date
12 March 2018
review posted
14 March 2018

See all of Camus' reviews