Annihilation Movie Review will be either viewed at Brilliant or Pretentious
I'll side with 'Annihilation' as brilliant.
'Annihilation' (a film about cell mutation) is a mutant in and of itself, crossbreeding classic monster films 'The Thing' and 'Alien' with the visceral and intelligent '2001 A Space Odyssey ' and Tarkovsky's 'Solaris' and 'Stalker'. Much like 'Stalker' a group of a single gender wanders into a mysterious land where metaphysics reign supreme. In the world of Tarkovsky, that distant allegorical land was the "Zone", here in Alex Garland's, it's the euphoric "shimmer", where time, space, and beings all have a mind of their own. Where plants take human form, fawns glide amidst a brazenly colorful forest with flowers budding from their antlers, where trees become awe inspiring ice sculptures servicing as a stunning backdrop for the deformed creatures to prey on the crew when it's lunchtime in alien time. Luckily for the viewer, Garland manifests all of this into his first two acts. A taut paced slow burn that borrows plenty from 'Stalker', but by the time the third act rolls around, get ready for your brain to be annihilated.
Some may call the mid to late 10's a Sci-Fi cinematic upsurge. Exceptionally layered films like 'Blade Runner 2049', 'Arrival', and Garland's directorial debut 'Ex Machina' to name a few. And Garland's second feature, the hypnotically gorgeous and forward thinking tale based on Jeff Vandermeer's novels the 'Southern Reach Trilogy' resides near the top of the ever growing list of such an upsurge.
The movie opens to what I presume to be a meteor hurtling itself at a lighthouse off the coast of Florida, although this no ordinary meteor. Antithetical to the one that made an entire species extinct(the dinosaurs), this radiant ball of fire from the sky comes to create life, although ironically the future of humanity like in every Science Fiction premise, is being threatened with the bemused cliche of "total annihilation". The movie then abruptly cuts to Lena(Natalie Portman) being interrogated by a burly man in a Hazmat suit. We do not know why or how, but soon enough we learn that the interview had taken place after her journey through the translucent wall lurking outside the base "ground zero". She, like her husband played by the indistinct Oscar Issac, are the only two to make it out of the shimmer, for better or worse.
Better men before them have tried to conquer the shimmer, but it's 2018, so in the light of female empowerment, the group of woman scientists alongside Portman must save the day. Fortunately, Garland gives his empowered females refreshing backstories of loss and disease, making the characters human, rather than indestructible forces that lay machismo stupidity to bed. The effects of the being, although obliquely, do arise long before the mission begins. This can be seen when Kane(Oscar Isaac), Lena's presumed dead husband abruptly materializes after his mission in the shimmer, but he isn't exactly acting himself. He appears ghastly pale, his eyes shriveled from experience, where he then begins to spit up blood. En route to the hospital, they are ran off the road and escorted to ground zero, where of course Lena decides to investigate the mystery. We then see Lena and company slowly approach the colossal wall from a distance, all of whom are incredibly smart but drastically unprepared for the sinister phenomenon that would ensue.
What follows is what would separate this from other genre films. It's poise, it's perspicacity, the feeling that something greater is taking place then the images on screen. Although I won't rush to exclaim that Alex Garland is the 21st centuries Tarkovsky, the haunting cinematic poetry that basks in sub-genre seen here and in 'Ex Machina' like Tarkovsky's best, doesn't explain to the general audience it's rhyme or reason, rather dives into visionary mystery that can be interpreted different ways depending on the viewer. Films that whether you like them or not will spark discussion. In the same manner here, Garland at every twist and turn gives us just enough to stay interested and confused, while never giving away too much. "Is she going insane"? or "Is this really taking place"? The answers are withheld until the eye opening final shot, but the entire way there, however slow or fast the pace moved, I was kept captivated, trapped in the confines of a world and plot that's incredibly difficult to capture. Rarely do films these days take this many risks, making this a sight for sore eyes. This may come with a divided audience, you can perceive this to be a masterpiece or
pretentious, I'll side towards masterpiece.
That is not to say this doesn't come without its flaws. Besides Portman and Isaac, the cast is decidedly underdeveloped. The always convincing Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr. Ventress isn't given much to do but be headstrong and never take no for answer, as if she was Nicolas Cage being offered scripts for B movies. The rest of the cast includes Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Sonya Mizuno, and Tuna Novotny who are distinctly diverse but show no diversity in their set of skills. They simply wander tirelessly and are no more than food for thought and for the creatures. However, they are all compelling in their roles, especially Portman, who is a vessel for the films emotional weight and a protagonist who we can root for.
Alex Garland has crafted now two of the best pictures of the genre in the past decade. Using his canvas to not only paint a picture that excites, but also one to ponder. He has developed controversial art, one that won't just be discussed as we leave the theater, but years from now. Tarkovsky's work wasn't abruptly discussed the way it is today, I hope the same can be said about Garland. Once again I am not saying Garland is the next Tarkovsky, yet there is no question we can see a resemblance to him. He may just be following in his footsteps or he maybe is stalking his ideas, either way, hopefully, he keeps em coming.