The bruising reality of Blade Runner 2049’s box office failure is no doubt one reason for Annihilation’s ‘relegation’ to a Netflix release internationally rather than the full cinematic roll-out. You can see why Columbia balked at spending millions on a theatrical release (it had a limited run in the US only) because Annihilation is a film of startling ideas and imagery that doesn’t fit the template for crowd-pleasing sci-fi.
Reports suggest that from test screenings the studio deduced Annihilation was too ‘intellectual’. What a shame because it demands to be seen on the big screen, such is the power of its visuals and its vision. We might just have to get used to endless Transformers sequels if this is the way things are going.
Alex Garland’s adaptation of the first book of Jeff Vandemeer’s Southern Reach trilogy centres around Natalie Portman’s Lena, a biologist whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is missing presumed dead after a top secret mission. But one night he suddenly shows up at their house in what seems like a state of dissociative disorder. When he starts bleeding, Lena rushes him to hospital but before she gets far, military forces swoop taking her and Kane to a special facility.
Here she learns that her husband’s mission was to investigate a bizarre phenomenon on the southern US coast called The Shimmer, an area surrounded by a glistening aura that is expanding northwards. With a team of scientists led by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s psychologist Dr Ventress, Lena goes into The Shimmer to find out what it is and to find out what happened to her husband.
From the outset, Annihilation has an air of brooding dread and given that Isaac’s character is called Kane, echoing John Hurt’s character in Alien, ideas of infection and infestation are planted in your mind. The deeper Lena and co delve into the swampy forest that The Shimmer has inhabited, the greater that sense of dread – and fascination – gets.
Plants and animals mutate and distort as if some super DNA bomb has been set off and evolution has gone haywire. But there’s also the sense that everything is overripe, bursting and splitting with its own fecundity.
You can feel the sweaty intensity of what Lena and the rest are going through as Garland builds the tension with the threat of something just out of view., lurking in the swamp, beyond the tree line or somewhere in an abandoned military facility.
Then when the scares are unleashed they’re supremely effective as body horror and body invasion take things to new levels of fear. The film’s finale takes us somewhere unexpected again, into the realms of the kind of speculative, mysterious, ambitious sci-fi that Kubrick and Tarkovsky might have dished up.
Fans of the book might feel short-changed by the fact that Garland has gone off-piste from the source novel but he’s made his own film and it’s rich with intrigue and ideas. It will be too baroque, too arch for some tastes but if you like your sci-fi distinctive, daring and visually arresting, Annihilation fits the bill.,