Review by LL Soares (with a guest appearance by Michael Arruda)
(THE SCENE: An abandoned building in the middle of an alien forest. Plant life is abundant and grows everywhere, but is in multiple vivid colors that just aren’t common in nature, as we know it. LL SOARES and MICHAEL ARRUDA approach the house, which is completely overrun with vines and flowers)
LL SOARES: We made it to the first checkpoint.
MICHAEL ARRUDA: Are we still on Earth? It looks like another planet.
LS: I know! Everything is so strange since we entered “the shimmer.” It’s disorienting.
(They enter the building and immediately something grabs MA and drags him up to the ceiling. LS shines a flashlight up at a giant SPIDER, covered in bright flowers, which proceeds to spin a web around MA, wrapping him up tightly for a later meal)
LS: Did you have to grab him so soon? We were reviewing a movie.
SPIDER: I’m awful hungry.
LS: Okay, okay. Don’t start whining.
SPIDER: Why don’t you review the movie now, for me? You’ve got a captive audience, and I’m sure Michael can still hear you.
LS: Okay. This week’s movie is called ANNIHILATION. I was pretty excited about this one because it’s the new movie by Alex Garland, who previously gave us the very cool EX MACHINA (2014), which was his directorial debut. But Garland was no newcomer to movies. His first exposure was THE BEACH (2000), which he didn’t write the screenplay for, but which was based on his novel of the same name. But that led to him writing screenplays for the Danny Boyle movies 28 DAYS LATER (2002) and SUNSHINE (2007), as well as the movies NEVER LET ME GO (2010) and DREDD (2012).
EX MACHINA, which he wrote as well as directed, starred Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson, with Alicia Vikander as a self-aware Artificial Intelligence, and it was such a strong, self-assured debut, that I was eager to see his next movie as a director, and ANNIHILATION is it.
One thing about paying to see a movie just like everyone else (instead of going to preview showings), and posting our big movie review of the week on Monday is that I get to hear a lot of the critical buzz before my review goes up. I avoid all other reviews until I’ve written my own, but sometimes you can’t help but hear what kind of reaction a movie is getting, and from what I could tell, ANNIHILATION was getting a very mixed reaction.
So, I’ll start out by saying I didn’t have mixed feelings about this one at all. I knew exactly how I felt leaving the theater.
SPIDER: So, what did you feel about it?
LS: I’ll keep you in suspense a bit longer.
ANNIHILATION is the story of a strange event that changes a part of the world. The event is a metor which comes down and strikes a lighthouse. Immediately, the lighthouse and its immediate environs are changed. But it doesn’t stop there. The area affected is growing, and from the outside it looks like some weird oozing barrier, which scientists are calling “the shimmer.” They’ve sent several teams of soldiers and scientists into the shimmer, and none have come back. That is, until a soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac) mysteriously shows up in the home of his wife Lena (Natalie Portman), who is a biology professor at John-Hopkins University. He has been gone almost a year, and since it was a top-secret mission, he wasn’t allowed to tell her anything about it.
Lena is overjoyed to see her husband again, but he’s definitely different. When he also suddenly becomes very ill, things get compicated. Lena and her husband are abducted and brought to a lab on the outskirts of “the shimmer,” and Lena finds herself part of the next team going inside. This team is all women and includes psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the first person Lena meets at the facility, as well as physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and soldiers Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez). It’s not really clear why the team is comprised solely of women (because previous teams were all men and they’re grasping for straws?), but right away these are characters who are believable and sympathetic.
Once they go inside the shimmer…well, I’m not really eager to talk too much about that.
SPIDER: Come on! Gimme a clue!
LS: I avoided learning too much about the plot before seeing ANNIHILATION, and it was one time when I was glad I hadn’t read the book beforehand. I really wanted to go into this one blind, not knowing what to expect. I wanted their journey into the shimmer to seem as alien to me as it was to the women exploring it.
I will say that the idea of a meteor or something extraterrestrial coming down and changing things it comes in contact with isn’t new. We’ve seen similar plotlines in DIE, MONSTER, DIE! (1965), which was in turn based on the novella THE COLOUR OUT OF SPACE by H.P. Lovecraft. In J.G. Ballard’s wonderful novel, THE CRYSTAL WORLD, something is changing all organic life into lifeless crystal, with no end in sight (it would make an amazing movie). And, for another take on it, there’s John Wyndham’s classic THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS (adapted for film in 1963). But ANNIHILATION has a completely fresh spin on the idea, and the movie (and I’m assuming the novel) offers some very fascinating results of such an occurrence.
SPIDER: So, did you like it.
LS: I did. One of the main problems some people have had with the the movie is that they claim it’s confusing. But I didn’t find that at all. I thought most of it made clear sense. And here’s where I want to bring in the movie THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018) for a comparison.
SPIDER: Oh no! Do you have to mention that one?
LS: I do, but to make a point. THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX is a severely flawed movie, but the basic concept is that, by coming into contact with another dimension, our heroes face some people and things that are decidedly alien. While the movie failed to use this concept in a compelling way (it was more annoying than compelling) the basic idea of alienness was something I could appreciate. How do you portray such a thing in a believable way?
ANNIHILATION shows us another situation where alienness is not fully explained, and yet, I fully accepted it and embraced it, because if we came upon a truly alien entity or environment, there’s a good chance we would not really understand it. Unlike THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX, ANNIHILATION takes this idea and runs with it, and gives us a movie that fully exploits the concept of pure alienness.
I think it’s a major achievement. Where THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX tries to give us something new and different, and just gives us something confusing, ANNIHILATION gives us a solid, powerful exploration of something that is truly outside of the human experience.
There’s some wonderful stuff here. First off, the acting is impeccable.
Jennifer Jason Leigh had a big career in the 1980s and 90s, and then seemed to disappear for awhile. The truth is, she was working steadily the whole time, maybe just not in as big budget movies as she once did. The result is that there seemes to be a resurgence in her career right now, based on praise she has gotten for roles in movies like ANOMALISA (2015), THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) and as one of the villains in the new Showtime revival of TWIN PEAKS (2017). I couldn’t be happier that she’s doing so well right now, because she’s a brilliant actress. Typical for her, Dr. Ventress is not a completely likeable character, but Leigh shines at giving us characters who can be unlikeable, but are no less human for it.
Gina Rodriguez is probably best known for playing the title character in the series JANE THE VIRGIN (2014 – Present), and she plays completely against type as the hard-as-nails soldier Anya Thorenson here. Swedish actress Tuva Novotny, previously in the movie EAT PRAY LOVE (2010) is also very good as Cass Sheppard. Tessa Thompson, whose career is also on an upward trajectory right now, in movies like CREED (2015) and THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), as well as the current HBO series WESTWORLD, plays a more sensitive, thoughtful character as physicist Josie Radek. All are terrific here.
Oscar Isaac has the smaller role of Lena’s husband Kane. But, as always, he’s very effective.
Natalie Portman is terrific here as the lead character, Lena. I first became aware of her way back when she was a kid in LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL (1994), and it’s been cool watching her grow into a terrific actress, in movies like CLOSER (2014), V FOR VENDETTA (2005), BLACK SWAN (2010), and JACKIE (2016), she’s just, simply, one of the best actresses around today, and she’s the strong, determined heart of ANNIHILATION. Not once do you question why she feels the need to do what she does. Not once do you feel that she’s lost her way, even when she’s in an environment completely foreign to her. She soldiers on throughout.
The effects, mostly CGI, are well done. This is the kind of movie where CGI offers some distinct advantages, since some of things they depict are so foreign to us. Sure, there might be a few moments where something looked a tiny bit fake (this always happens in CGI, I’ve never seen any movie using it that is completely convincing throughout), but for the most part, the computer images are above average.
I also want to praise the movie’s score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. Instead of trying to manipulate the audience, their soundtrack actually enhances the experience.
The direction by Alex Garland is also impeccable, at times reminding me of giants like Stanley Kubrick (especially toward the end of the movie), and Garland’s script is solid (based on the celebrated novel by Jeff VanderMeer).
I didn’t ever feel completely lost or confused while watching ANNIHILATION, because with Garland at the controls (and Portman as our guide), I never once felt that I wasn’t in the hands of a complete professionals who knew exactly what they were doing. Is everything that happens completely coherent and understandable? No. Because we’re not supposed to understand everything. None of the characters, not even Portman, fully understands what they’re experiencing. So why should we?
To be truly alien, events have to be outside our realm of experience, outside our comfort zone, and Garland and Company achieve this admirably.
I found myself enthralled throughout, and still thinking about what I’d seen long after the movie ended.
February has been a very good month for movies, and I really enjoyed BLACK PANTHER as well. It was one of the best superhero movies made so far. But ANNIHILATION is something else entirely. It’s not just a well-made, smart science fiction movie. It’s the first movie masterpiece of 2018.
I give it four and a half knives.
SPIDER: Wow, you really liked this one a lot!
LS: Yes, I did. I actually liked it even more than I thought I would.
SPIDER: Well, maybe I’ll go see it sometime. Right now, I’d say it’s time for dinner.
(MA opens his eyes, waking up from his coma-like state, and struggles in his web cocoon)
SPIDER: Do you want to stick around and watch me eat?
LS: I’ll pass. I’d better get back to civilization. I’ve got to get the word out about this movie.
SPIDER: Ta ta!
MA’s VOICE: Come back here, you bastard!
© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares
LL Soares gives ANNIHILATION ~ 4 1/2 knives