Alex Garland has been in the film and story writing business for a very long time. At the start of his career path finding top tier success, he wrote The Beach which would later be adapted into the Di Caprio film we all know and love. He would then go on to write the screenplay for 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Eventually, he would begin his directorial debut with the fantastic Ex Machina. It was with that film that Garland would truly surprise us all and the arrival of Annihilation proves that it was no one hit wonder. With such a gleaming path of success behind him and having now directed two incredibly thoughtful films, Alex Garland has now cemented himself as one of the most intelligent and interesting directors in the movie business of today.
Annihilation, by its very premise of misinterpreted alien life threatening humanity’s continued existence, could have been very “by the numbers”. It could have been your average action movie with a set of rambunctious female ass kickers, spouting hammy quotes as they battled their way towards the top badguy. Yet, Alex Garland refuses to allow his films to descend into conformity and predictability.
By the very nature of the story, adapted into film from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, Annihilation sees to it that audiences never know what to expect next. This alien force that cannot be seen is mutating plantlife and wildlife in dangerous and beautiful ways. Not only that, but through concise character exposition, each of the five brave ladies allow the film to discuss themes of what's involved in the human experience. We experience Portman’s guilt as a past affair haunts her more and more, the closer she gets to the lighthouse, the source of the alien disturbance. While the other girls give equally human reactions to panicked discussions on the inexplicable and a desire to get the hell out of dodge and go on living.
Each of the girls are hand picked, intelligent specialists in their field. Lena (Natlie Portman) is a biologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a depressed psychologist, Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) is a paramedic, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) is a physicist who’s acting is a far cry from the badass we saw in Thor: Ragnarok, and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) is a geologist. That last name may be lesser known to audiences in the West but despite the Swedish actress’ relatively short role, she acts out the character of Sheppard in a convincingly human way. The same high bar of acting can be said for each of the characters as they bring an intelligent clout to each scene they play. Where most films with this kind of setting employ an Aliens kind of approach where characters freak out, going “it’s game over man! Oh God we’re all going to die!”, Annihilation’s girls remain fairly calm and professional. The audience is able to relate to their thought processes, spoken aloud, as they try to make sense of the endless scientific head scratchers they find.
The underlying theme of Annihilation is one of confusion. The first time we see the girls in The Shimmer, they have been there travelling on foot for five days but have no recollection of getting there. They come up with scientific theories that convince the audience they’ve figured something out when later, we see something that damns their theories back to square one. Though, it is never explained to the viewer, as Garland respects the intelligence of those who choose to watch this incredibly thoughtful film. Although, nothing is ever frustratingly unclear or jarring as we ponder our way through Annihilation, despite Garland’s unusual method of story telling with flashbacks and flash forwards segmenting the scientists’ journey. Often, we say that satisfaction is found in the journey itself and not so much in the destination we’re getting to. Although, Annihilation is all about the destination.
The very first scenes of the film are set at the end of the story’s timeline. Everything we see in the run up to the end of the film is like taking all the pieces of the puzzle and sticking them together until eventually we have nice neat picture. What cements the film as so much more than a typical psychological horror / thriller (whatever you choose to call it) is its final scenes. Alex Garland is swiftly making his way up the sci fi ladder of directors, clearing aiming to stand shoulder to shoulder with Stanley Kubrick. This is reflected in the “figure it out for yourself” kind of storytelling and the incredibly haunting soundtrack near the end. Viewers are left to decide if the onslaught of moody bass rumbles are a part of the film, as they accurately reflect what we see with no real harmony… or if it is indeed, just some creepy music.
Everything from the segmented nature of the story, to the characters to the haunting soundtrack is built on a foundation of purposeful audience confusion. A very risky decision for Alex Garland, although he definitely has the intelligence and movie making know-how to ensure this simply means a totally engrossing two hour long thought process for the viewer. Although, it was for this reason that, at a screen test, big worries developed that Annihilation would be a box office flop. Garland is quoted as being incredibly frustrated that his film would only be enjoyed on the big screen at cinemas in China. As for audiences in the West, the film was deemed “too intelligent and potentially confusing” for viewers to enjoy. As a result, Annihilation arrived exclusively on Netflix. Thankfully, beautiful as it was at times, I never felt like I had missed out on the big screen as Annihilation’s scenes played out just fine in my living room.
If you enjoyed the likes of the equally thought provoking The Arrival or Interstellar or even Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, then Annihilation will absolutely be for you. Annihilation gets top marks, despite its box office worries, as everything in the film is intelligently crafted. For those who choose to dive in, Garland’s bravery to pursue such originality in how a film is delivered to us will be absolutely appreciated. It will play back in the minds of its viewers, haunting them with more questions and begging them to go back to Annihilation for another look at its mysteries.