About an hour and forty five minutes into Annihilation, the latest film from screenwriter/director Alex Garland, I was hit by a pang of existential dread. Uncharacteristically, it was soon followed by a sense of elation: the film had taken a fairly typical sci-fi premise (the expedition into an unknown world) and woven it into something unique: a tapestry of our core anxieties – the meaninglessness of life, the loss of control, and good old fashioned death.
To explain the exact source of my dread without spoiling the movie would be tricky, so let me just say this: the final 30 minutes is a glorious whirlwind that forces you to contemplate the nature of consciousness. Like an acid trip, but without the hallucinations.
Like Arrival and Interstellar before it, Annihilation takes the idea of an extra terrestrial invasion to a higher plane, building to a crescendo that more or less eradicates the ill feeling generated by some of the clunkier, more conventional bits of storytelling that come before it.
While the pay-offs in Christopher Nolan and Villeneuve’s films failed to really land with me, this one hit like a gut-punch.
So, the premise: Natalie Portman is Lena, a biologist and former soldier who finds herself in a government-run facility built around a mysterious being known as The Shimmer, an Upside Down-like presence – though more alien than inter-dimensional – that is gradually expanding across the land, threatening to engulf the Earth. What this would mean for the fate of the human race is unclear; all we know is that, of all the soldiers who have gone inside this strange phenomenon, only one has come back alive – Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) – and he’s a shadow of his former self.
Driven by an apparent desire to understand her husband’s plight, she signs up to enter the Shimmer on a last ditch expedition, flanked by a team of female scientists – a psychologist (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), a geomorphologist (Tuva Nuvotny), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez) and a physicist (Tessa Thompson).
Once the gang is inside the Shimmer, the film begins to tick off horror tropes. Creatures lurking in the wilderness provide some jump scares, but the real fear is in the wider unknown. What is the source of this growth–- why is it distorting our world? And what happens when its grip takes hold?
While the delivery in itself doesn’t feel all that new, the hope that the answers will bring some satisfaction – and a few surprises – before the film is out keeps you gripped. Thankfully, Garland delivers both.
The director has tackled the concept of consciousness before, in his 2011 directorial debut Ex Machina, which saw Domhnall Gleeson’s tech engineer Caleb fall for an artificially intelligent robo-lady called Ava (Alicia Vikander).
Caleb, who has been tasked with determining whether or not Ava has become truly sentient, gets lost somewhere along the way; lured into a trap by her beauty (man-made) and her apparent self-awareness. At a certain point, we have to confront what it means to be human, and whether or not her life is worth less than his, if she does feel things in the way that he thinks she does.
Here, we reckon with it on a grander scale. If the alien matter continues to spread, it is suggested, human existence is threatened. Not annihilation – not in the usual sense, anyway – but a different, altered state that is not reconcilable with consciousness as we know it.
Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac in Annihilation, from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.
While Portman and Isaac are sharp as ever in their portrayal of a flawed union (an early scene, in which the two lie in bed and discuss the secrecy of his upcoming mission, is raw and heartbreaking), their domestic drama can feel a little out of place in the grander arc.
Equally, some of the film’s supporting players, such as the underused Tessa Thompson, can feel like archetypes of the kind of flawed movie characters that take on a mission from which they know they’re unlikely to return. Of Lena’s fellow mercenaries, only Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is, as ever, brilliant) is given any true depth.
But it’s Lena’s journey, and the terrifying realisation at the climax of the mission, that drives the film and both Portman and her screenwriter deliver precisely when needed.
Much has been made of Paramount’s decision to pull the film’s cinematic release outside of the US, and, while it is indeed a shame not to view it as it was intended, we should be thankful that Netflix stepped in to bring it to a worldwide audience. Now, let’s just hope that people actually watch it so we can see more of its kind break through into the mainstream.
Annihilation is available to watch on Netflix UK from 12th March