Can a movie be too smart? Apparently, it can; if it’s Alex Garland’s thoughtful sci-fi adventure, Annihilation. Paramount famously denied the film a cinema release* earlier this year, allegedly on the basis it was “too intelligent” for the average filmgoer. (How you feeling now, fellow Australians? Seems we’re too stupid.) So instead of heading into cinemas, it went straight to Netflix, which had partially financed the production.
Without wanting to validate Paramount’s position, I have to say this is a dense, elliptical thriller. It defies easy categorisation, and requires a lot of thought. But you could say the same about Garland’s previous film, the brilliant Ex Machina. And none of that should dissuade you from giving this film a go on the small screen.
A lighthouse in the southern US has become a no-go zone since the appearance of “The Shimmer”. Sparked by a meteorite strike, “The Shimmer” is growing and could threaten nearby communities. Several military expeditions into the area have ended in mysterious disappearances. The only soldier to emerge is Kane (Oscar Isaac). When he makes it home to his biologist wife Lena (Natalie Portman) after a year missing, he’s a changed man. But his medical condition quickly deteriorates, and Lena calls 911. The ambulance is however intercepted by shadowy government agents, and the pair are both whisked off to “Area X”, a military camp near “The Shimmer”.
While Kane is kept sedated, Lena meets Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ventress is planning a scientific (as opposed to military) expedition into “The Shimmer”. Believing her skills can assist, Lena volunteers to enlist. She joins Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and Radek (Tessa Thompson) in the small party. But once they step into “The Shimmer”, everything will be very different.
So what’s it all about? Well, it’s pretty safe to say it’s not about aliens. There’s a very strong cancer metaphor running through Annihilation. It also delves into the marriage between Lena and Kane. In fact, you could argue the two are intertwined. Their marital issues might be seen as a kind of cancer, destroying the relationship from within.
The film has some parallels with earlier sci-fi, notably James Cameron’s Aliens, but appropriately dials back the “gung ho” factor. It’s tonally more like Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, or (going back further) Kubrick’s 2001. Watch out for the mind-bending final shot, which asks many more questions than it answers.
Like Ex Machina, Annihilation features some spectacular visual effects. From the design of “The Shimmer” itself to some bizarre creatures the team encounters, there’s a lot to take in. Things get rather less credible in the final sequence at the lighthouse, but I was happy enough to go with it. It also features a certain amount of gore, but it’s relatively restrained.
Natalie Portman (Jackie) is excellent in the lead role. As usual, she brings subtlety to Lena, a character who could easily have fallen into cliche. Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight) provides a flinty counterpoint as Ventress. The script treats Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin), Tuva Novotny (Eat, Pray, Love) and Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) less favourably, but they’re far from mere “creature fodder”. Oscar Isaac (Suburbicon) has a much smaller role than you’d expect for him, but his character is critical.
I found Annihilation absolutely fascinating. It hits the wrong notes occasionally, but this unusual sci-fi thriller still has a lot going for it. Too smart? Maybe; but it’s still compelling viewing.
It’s now streaming on Netflix in Australia.