Friday, 16 March 2018

Film Review: Science fiction rarely comes as paradoxically human and alien as Annihilation

There's nothing more exciting than the reinvigoration and golden age of a genre. What with Arrival and Interstellar and The Last Jedi and Blade Runner 2049 (which I did eventually come around on), it's exactly what's happening to science fiction right now. While these are all terrific films, what each of them lack is ambiguity - despite the complicated shenanigans going on, everything is ultimately explained on screen. A big part of me has been longing for a film to bring back the unavoidably alien enigma and mystery of, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey (the defining science fiction film of all time) and hold that tone until the credits roll - it's a big ask, I know, but I wanted something to give it a go. Annihilation, the second film by Alex Garland, takes a deep breath, gives it a shot and only goes and lands the bloody thing.

To put it simply, a meteor landed on Earth three years ago and the crash site has since been engulfed by a bizarre barrier referred to as The Shimmer. Task forces have been sent in, but none have returned besides one man - soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac), who is hardly in a fitting state when he resurfaces a year later. Biologist, and Kane's wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), along with a group of other women - paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) and psychologist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) - are tasked with entering the Shimmer for a research expedition in an attempt to work out whatever the Hell is going on inside.

It becomes clear very early on that Annihilation is building to something, but we're never able to figure out quite what it has its sights on. Garland, who also wrote the film's script, handles the build up impeccably, knowing precisely when to drop hints and gives answers, and when to hold back his real hand. The gorgeous cinematography from Rob Hardy is accompanied fittingly by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's score, an arrangement that makes use of both quietly disconcerting string pieces and screeching electronic synths. It's a mash of styles that feels both familiar and foreign, something that Annihilation itself can also lay claim to - we rarely get a scenic shot of the Shimmer's natural environment without some form of mutation lurking within the frame, reminding us that, while we remain firmly on Earth, we're not entirely in our own world anymore.

It creates an eerie, nightmarish atmosphere that snaps into play the moment Lena steps into the Shimmer and doesn't cut out until the film ends. Much like how Annihilation feels both human and alien, the film also plays with other contradictions - the atmosphere we find ourself in is unmistakably nightmarish, and yet the film's slow pacing and colourful scenery is more reminiscent of a dream you don't want to end. Annihilation is endlessly dreamlike and, as our characters venture further into the unknown in search for answers, it's not difficult to view Garland's film as a metaphor on the journey into the subconscious, to a place where answers await us without us actively seeking them out. Both Lena and Dr Ventress talk frequently about wanting answers, something the film itself remains hell bent on not giving us until we work them out for ourselves.

Annihilation is most concerned, though, with the concept of self destruction, and the ways in which we interpret and process our pain and suffering. In a beautifully played scene, Cass talks with Lena about how each of the women on the mission is hurting from something, a broken marriage or suicidal tendencies or the loss of a child. As the film progresses it strengthens and complicates its interpretation of self destruction further, but to go into too much detail would be to ruin a final act rich with surprises that should remain unspoiled. Garland begins to look at the duality of the self, at humanity as fragmentation - a scene in which Lena quite literally battles herself begins with unadulterated horror, shifts into something uncomfortably beautiful, and finally lands on a thematic metaphor that could be too on the nose but instead feels entirely justified. Garland's control over his film is breathtaking, the confidence and ambition he displays in just his second feature is truly commendable - even more so because he actually pulls the damn thing off.

Rather surprisingly - and, initially, frustratingly - Annihilation is wrapped around a flashback structure. We meet Lena in the present, are made aware that she survives the mission, and watch what happened as she tells the scientists debriefing her. It's an unusual narrative choice for a film of this nature, as it innately robs Annihilation of a source of tension since we know Lena survives any danger she finds herself in - although, a sequence involving a mutated bear is sickeningly intense enough for you to forget that. In any other film I'd perhaps consider this form of narrative structure a gimmick, a weakness even, but the rest of Garland's film is comprised of such surefire precision that I find myself looking at this framework differently. Are we to trust what we see here? After all, we're only watching Lena's retelling - and, thus, her version - of these events, why should we believe her? It adds a layer to the film that will provide endless speculation and interpretation, especially as Garland drops just enough logical abnormalities for us to not quite buy into what we're being told. Again, his control here is masterful.

Annihilation must also be commended not only for its mostly female cast, but for its tackling of such an element. The film never sells itself as female science fiction or acts as if what it's doing is progressive, it instead uses its cast to complicate its characters and enrich the dynamic between them - it's immediately tough to imagine the film working this well with a core cast of more than one gender. Natalie Portman leads the way with a performance likely to grow in stature as the film is remembered, her emotional distance and stunning physicality in the film's finale is reminiscent of her work in Aronofsky's Black Swan, yet here she presents us with less clarity - it's both a more focused performance and a more withholding one. The rest of the film's cast are uniformly excellent, each actress given her moment to sell herself, but it's Portman the film belongs to - her work in the film's final act is sure to cement her place among the short list of classic female sci-fi performances.

Annihilation will prove divisive, but cinema of this wavelength should strive for such a response. No one made a classic by catering to easy triumphs, no film is remembered for how well it plays by the rulebook. Garland's first feature, Ex Machina, was gritty sci-fi with a soul, but Annihilation is a colossal step forward in every regard. It's more ambitious, it's more conceptual, it's more thought provoking and narratively complex and thematically dense. This is science fiction that will be remembered, the kind of film that will hopefully inspire a new generation of film makers to make what they want to make, not what people want them to make. It is bold, dizzying stuff from Garland, and likely to keep his name in the headlines for the rest of his career. Good luck topping this one, 2018.

In A Sentence

Anchored by a bold performance from Natalie Portman, Annihilation is modern science fiction that shatters expectation and refuses to simplify its meaning, resulting in a film as unnervingly beautiful as it is ambiguously cerebral.

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