In 2015, we were presented with Alex Garland’s directorial debut, the film Ex Machina, starring Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander.
The film is an exploration of the Turing Test and how the philosophical ideas that we predispose ourselves to can be applied to artificial intelligence. The film blended existential horror with an aspect of science fiction that felt progressively more like reality.
It won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, ultimately losing to Spotlight. If you haven’t checked it out yet, it’s luckily available to stream on Amazon Prime.
With his first feature film having received so much praise and the fact that Garland had already written novels and other films (his most famous being 28 Days Later, featuring Cillian Murphy), it was safe to say that critics and fans alike were anxiously anticipating his next film.
With that in mind, it’s important to give backstory about what Annihilation is outside of the film. It’s based on the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. The novel of the same title covers an expedition of four scientists who venture into a place called Area X.
That’s the extent of my knowledge about the novel, which I didn’t have the chance to read before watching the film. However, I can’t really compare them, and my experience of the film definitely benefited from that fact.
That being said, Garland has been quoted as saying that he wrote the screenplay from memory alone, after reading the book just once, never returning to it as a reference.
The same loose plot is clearly there. The film follows five scientists — a psychologist, a paramedic, a physicist, a surveyor/geologist and a biologist/ex-soldier — that all venture into what is referred to in the film as the Shimmer.
The film explores how the effects of the Shimmer have altered the environment, as well as why previous expeditions failed. The scientists’ ultimate aim is to discover what exactly lies at the center of the Shimmer.
It’s a very simple concept that Garland infuses with themes of self-destruction and humanity’s constant fear of the inevitability of our own mortality on an individual and species-wide level.
Of course, the film wouldn’t be able to sell this storyline without a star-studded cast, including Natalie Portman as our biologist, Tessa Thompson as the physicist, Jennifer Jason Leigh as the psychologist, Gina Rodriguez as the paramedic and Tuva Novotny as the surveyor.
Each of them plays an important role when it comes to establishing the thematic elements of the plot. There’s an incredible scene early on that provides vital exposition on these individuals and the terror that follows, their anxieties only intensifying as we see them delve deeper and deeper into the Shimmer.
I would be remiss to not mention Oscar Isaac, whose role as Natalie Portman’s husband serves as the catalyst for her character’s decisions. Isaac’s character doesn’t have nearly as much depth as the female characters in the film, but you quickly realize that this doesn’t matter.
His flashback scenes with Portman are there to give us a glimpse into a relationship, including all of its imperfections, and to provide insight into how Portman’s character dealt with the frustrations that were a part of their relationship.
In addition to portraying fantastic, complex dynamics between Annihilation’s cast of characters, Garland is able to make the area inside the Shimmer look both beautiful and terrifying. This is a place where decay and growth happen simultaneously; we even see an alligator-shark hybrid.
While this world is visually stunning, there’s also an element of horror in the Shimmer, thanks to the fact that it’s a space where things that are scientifically impossible can thrive.
I won’t spoil what the Shimmer does, but I will say that it’s a genuinely amazing concept even if you aren’t big on science fiction. Some things inside the Shimmer still haunt me in my dreams.
Garland executes all these moments so well that although you know something potentially terrifying is coming, you can’t keep your eyes off of the screen. This is aided by the fantastic score by Ben Salisbury that helps create the atmosphere of mystery that follows our heroines.
Annihilation is one of the most beautifully terrifying science fiction films I’ve seen in the past eight years. It’s wonderfully acted and benefits from the deft hand of someone that has directed more than one film.
It is also unique in the manner in which it deals with questions that are fundamental to humanity in a very overt way. I can’t recommend supporting this film enough, even if only because I can promise you that it isn’t like anything you’ve ever seen before.
Alex Garland has quickly turned into one of my favorite science fiction writer/directors, and I can’t wait to see what he has up next.