By Skyler Romero
“Annihilation”, the newest film from director Alex Garland starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Oscar Isaac, is the most recent addition in a growing trend of low-key, thoughtful science fiction films that deal in more intriguing ideas than spectacle. The plot is driven by scientific inquiry, focusing on a team of intelligent skeptics as they try to make sense of phenomena that seem to defy everything they know about their respective fields of expertise. Much of the thrill of “Annihilation” is derived from watching a group of highly knowledgeable scientists utilizing their considerable skills to investigate something that seems to be completely beyond the understanding of known science. This creates a palpable uneasiness that persists throughout the film’s entire runtime. Portman plays Lena, an ex-military biology professor whose soldier husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns unexpectedly from a mysterious mission after having been presumed dead for months. Not only is he unable to recall anything about the mission, but he seems to be a completely different person, cold and distant in contrast to the playful, loving husband we see in flashbacks. Almost immediately, Portman and Isaac are scooped up by his superiors and taken to the outskirts of Area X, a large area of swamp enclosed by a mysterious “shimmer,” a sort of wall of brilliant light that is slowly expanding to engulf more and more land. We learn that Isaac was a part of a team sent into the shimmer to collect data, and that so far he is the only person to ever return from such an expedition. Desperate to learn the truth about what happened to her husband, Portman joins a new team of scientists in venturing into Area X. What they find is strange, unsettling, and often terrifying.
In the months leading up to the movie’s release, much has been made about its all-female leading cast, with Portman, Leigh, Thompson, Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny portraying the main team of scientists. The film itself makes very little of the fact that the team is made up entirely of females, allowing the characters to exist as relatable human beings with fleshed-out personalities. Portman is in fine form as the bewildered newcomer to the team, while Leigh exudes a quiet menace as the team’s leader. Thompson gives an understated performance as an introverted physicist, while Rodriguez serves as the team’s brazen muscle and Novotny brings a cool steeliness to her geologist character.
The near-total lack of specific acknowledgment of the team’s gender helps the movie to focus more on the stunning atmosphere the filmmakers have created within Area X. As the team presses on, the audience is treated to gorgeous images of lush plant life, creeping vines dotted with colorful flowers, and confounding natural formations. While the environment of Area X is often beautiful to behold, it holds its share of horrors as well. The faint of heart and weak of stomach should be warned: “Annihilation” is frequently horrifying and occasionally very gruesome. Though it shares many strands of cerebral science fiction DNA with Garland’s directorial debut “Ex Machina”, it ventures much closer to horror territory than that film ever did.
Garland’s aesthetic for “Annihilation” is crawling with life, the heat and humidity of the swamp practically oozing from the screen. The film deals with potentially upsetting questions about what constitutes humanity, by depicting a natural world that is implacable, inexplicable, and completely indifferent to the blind fumblings of human understanding.
With its focus on heavy questions of human consciousness and scientific discovery, “Annihilation” joins a number of recent science fiction films that have mined similar material to great success: Garland’s own “Ex Machina” comes to mind, as well as Denis Villeneuve’s back-to-back sci-fi epics “Arrival” and “Blade Runner 2049”. Like the former, “Annihilation” tells a thrilling and suspenseful story of scientists and other academic-types collaborating to solve an otherworldly mystery, while it shares the latter’s deliberate pacing and overwhelming sense of atmosphere. There are people who say that we are living in a golden age of science fiction filmmaking. If that is true, then “Annihilation” will surely be remembered among the best of what the genre has to offer.