Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and professor, has finally started moving on after the disappearance of her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). When he suddenly reappears, she is elated but knows something is wrong. The pair get brought into a secure facility, where Lena learns that her husband was the only survivor from a team sent into “The Shimmer” – a classified environmental disaster zone. Wanting to save her husband, Lena joins a new team of scientists and researchers who venture into the Shimmer with the intention of uncovering its secrets.
Annihilation is not so much a Film as it is an experience and a bold expression of pure Science-Fiction. Writer/Director Alex Garland swings hard for the fences here, crafting an outrageous mix of his directorial debut Ex Machina as well as the work of Denis Villeneuve, David Cronenberg and of course, legendary Filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. While he uses elements from Jeff VanderMeer’s original source Novel, Garland’s take on the world of Annihilation feels more personal and unique. He uses his behind-the-scenes team to add painstaking background details and layers to each scene, never letting one moment or piece of dialogue go wasted. The world they create feels like its own distinct entity, one that is just as gorgeous as it is dangerous. The visual palette on display here is nothing short of extraordinary and begs to be experienced on the biggest screen possible – watching it on your television or laptop will simply not do it justice.
While I was left breathless by the astounding visuals, I found the deeper experience of watching Annihilation to be maddening and frustrating. I can appreciate all of the material Garland packs into the Film, but found the two-hour running time to be excessive and unnecessarily dragged out. Worse, he cannot seem to stick to one tone, so he allows the Film to jump wildly between a handful of them. It is an intentional move on his part, but that decision makes it increasingly strenuous to genuinely engage with the material. Garland also stays deliberately ambiguous and audacious in some of his explanations, allowing some bizarre moments to play out simply because he can as opposed to having an actual purpose. Many will write him off as a brilliant Auteur for this reason and leave it at that, but the narrative around the stunning visuals is missing the connective tissue needed to truly make the film complete.
Thankfully, Garland has put together a terrific Ensemble of strong female performers who give the Film a riveting reason to keep watching. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny all deliver excellent ass-kicking performances, truly helping fill out the world of Annihilation. Isaac is also consistently exceptional in his small yet pivotal role. But Portman is the one-woman wrecking ball that overshadows everything and everyone around her. While her character may alternate between poignant sadness and fierce warrior, Portman herself stays razor sharp at all times. Her laser like focus and precise movements play into the infinite nuances of Garland’s Film, practically moving in sync with the material no matter the circumstance. It is a blisteringly vivid performance that may go down as some of the best work of her career.
Annihilation is the kind of bold and beautiful filmmaking the franchise heavy studio system is quickly rendering extinct. Garland’s second feature directorial effort packs in spectacular visuals and magnificent performances, but the Film around them is maddening and frustrating. But that seems like Garland’s intention from the start – to ask difficult questions and offer enigmatic answers. I watched the Film nearly two weeks ago, and it has haunted me ever since. How often can you say that about any current new release?
Paramount Pictures Canada release ANNIHILATION on February 23, 2018.
Alex Garland recently was in Toronto in support of the Film. Click here to read more.