‘Annihilation’ review: A Fate Inescapable

Life is a Cinema Hall rating: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5) (This rating is only a snapshot. The details are in the words.)

Little would director Alex Garland have imagined that his onscreen translation of author Jeff VanderMeer‘s trilogy that goes by the same name would eventually meet a fate that can only be described as an annihilation of cinematic dreams. It must have seemed like wanting to feature an article on the glazed paper of an international magazine and eventually crash land into the local rag. Except that Netflix is not local and most certainly not a rag, and Paramount definitely hedged if not capitulated its bets.

Which is why, the release of Annihilation on the streaming service is welcome news, and definitely a superior alternative to no release at all. (After all, wasn’t the deeply moving and powerful Mudbound an exclusive for our home theaters?) Director Garland, who wrote the screenplay as well, combines horror with science fiction and then transmogrifies the movie into something so confounding and yet gripping that when the end credits display, you’re at a loss for words.

Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, and Gina Rodriguez - Mission Impausible
Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, and Gina Rodriguez : Mission Implausible.

Opening with an obviously quarantined Lena (Natalie Portman) who, we learn later, is a cellular biologist and ex-army, the questions that are thrown at her begin with her diet when she was “there” and how she survived. That “there” is where most of the movie’s action takes place, but by the time you get there, you’ve also traversed quite some bit of the past with Lena, her missing husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returning all of a sudden in a scene that’s set to the hypnotic harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash’s Helplessly Hoping. Here’s where the director also executes a critical shot of the pair sitting across each other at their table, a glass of water on their side; when the camera captures her hands on his through the glass, that refraction is cause for reflection later on in the movie.

That’s not the only critical turn in that scene that pushes Lena to team up with Area X facility’s psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), physicist Josie Radeck (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and cross the boundary into “there”, which is called the Shimmer. In the Shimmer is where the seemingly transcendentally meditative flora and fauna, landscaped by green and a shock of hypnotic foliage turns against them. In stunningly executed scenes that throttle your senses and whiten your knuckles, the team of women fights to stay alive, make sense of what’s happening around them, even as they set out on a fraught journey to a lighthouse that may have all the answers. For you, the lighthouse might be a mirage, as the deathly expedition suddenly turns from extraneous terror to discomfiting introspection.

Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson swear off Lacoste
Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson swear off Lacoste.

Annihilation is, in so many ways, open to interpretation, but what’s inescapable is that it, at a very cellular and tumorous level, opens up the countdown to self-destruction that’s wired inside all of us. As Ventress laconically tells Lena, “….almost all of us self-destruct. Somehow. In some part of our lives. We drink, or take drugs, or destabilize the happy job… or happy marriage.” The shadow that flickers on Lena’s face hints at something that we don’t about her, but does Ventress?

The cast is superb all around, especially Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, as their characters circle the inescapable truth of life and death, finally realizing what the Shimmer is. To director Garland’s credit, the all-women cast inside the Shimmer doesn’t feel like one, as it well should be.

Adding to the ominous and pulse-pounding narrative is the background score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. They don’t relent, never making you forget that nothing’s the way it seems, adding layers of fear with booming synths and twisted chorals, relieved temporarily by their acoustic guitars. The distant sound of the Shimmer booms, scares, and invites, reminding me of what composer Rahul Dev Burman did in the climactic scenes of the 1977 musical blockbuster Hum Kisi Se Kam Nahin (We are not less than anyone) – when the good fellas face off with the baddies in a jungle, there’s no banging score; just the gentle bubbling and whip of keyboard-air that subliminally adds to the tension.

Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson face a flood of fear.
Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson face a flood of fear.

It’s easy to see, at some level, why Annihilation was dealt the economic-induced sleight of hand that it was. The movie is frustrating, laced with pyrotechnic-infused, alien-yet-beautiful colorscape, and scrapes out more questions than answers. Is all the imagery and danger inside the Shimmer at a cellular level? Or, is it also extrapolating the self-destruction that we human beings have set for this place that Nature kindly – and in hindsight misguidedly, perhaps – let us have? Is it how we’ve let ourselves down, opening up our insides to pernicious diseases, and making this planet more vulnerable than ever before?

The executives at Paramount who saw the negative audience reaction at a test screening – and decided to release Annihilation in limited theaters across US and China, and on Netflix later – sure didn’t have these questions trouble them. Unbeknownst to them, director Garland, in some ways, set off the glow of the Shimmer on this project just by launching it.

Life is a Cinema Hall ratings chart
1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5): Don’t bother
2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5): Not too great
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5): Worth a watch
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5): Very good
5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5): Drop everything else NOW

Annihilation (2018) on IMDb

Movie data powered by IMDb

Annihilation  is rated R (Restricted to adults) There’s violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality.

 Alex Garland Running Time 1h 55 min
Writers Alex Garland (written for the screen by), Jeff VanderMeer (based on the novel by)
Stars Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson
Genres  Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, Sci-Fi, Thriller

Watch the trailer of Annihilation here: