Sunday 4 November 2018

Movie Review: Annihilation (2018)

A science fiction horror film, Annihilation offers plenty of original material without quite reaching the profound heights it aims for.

Lena (Natalie Portman), a cellular biology professor and former army soldier, is in quarantine and being debriefed as the only survivor of a treacherous mission. In flashback, she recounts her story. She was grieving the disappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), a Special Forces soldier missing for 12 months, when he suddenly reappears at home in a daze and suffering severe internal injuries. They are both whisked away to a secret military and scientific base in a large isolated natural reserve.

With Kane sedated and under treatment, psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) explains to Lena that they are on an edge of an ever-growing area occupied by "the Shimmer", an alien phenomenon that crash landed onto Earth. All previous missions into the area have been annihilated, and Kane is the first survivor to ever walk out. Lena joins Ventress and four other women scientists preparing to enter the Shimmer, including Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Radek (Tessa Thompson) and Sheppard (Tuva Novotny).

Written and directed by Alex Garland, Annihilation is a beautifully photographed, glossy and innovative film. Capably blending human psychology with science and no shortage of horror and gore, Garland introduces plenty of thought-provoking material. The emphasis on a group of women scientists is refreshing, as is the premise of women scientists deployed to fulfill a mission where military men have previously failed. The fantastical imagery is seamlessly produced, and the monsters contribute moments of effective horror.

However, the film does suffer from an unfortunate inattention to important details, including an almost total disregard for basic scientific and military discipline. Garland decides to bypass some seemingly critical explanations, such as how a group of scientists are equipped with military rifles, why they proceed to touch and take samples within the Shimmer without any protective equipment, and according to what logic are guards posted on vulnerable open ground instead of on a readily available watchtower.

Garland does better on the more intellectual elements. One fundamental question emerging within the Shimmer is the reconstruction of nature, including humans, according to new cellular compositions, and the film asks whether markedly reimagined natural rules could possibly be a good thing. And the in-built human propensity to deconstruct as an escape and coping mechanism becomes a common thread in the lives of the women on the expedition.

While Garland does try to give each of the scientists a backstory, other than Lena and Ventress, they remain relatively featureless.

The final climactic resolution weaves together threads of renewal emerging from the pre-existing condition, and contains beauty, potential and mystery. Garland leaves most of the interpretation up for discussion, and while Annihilation is far from perfect, the Shimmer offers plenty of wonders to ponder.

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