Dumped on the Netflix platform after the studio heads deemed it too intellectual for casual filmgoers, thus resulting in its worldwide availability for which I sure as hell am not complaining, Annihilation isn’t an easy film to decipher in one sitting given its intricate structure, abstract layers & thought-provoking ideas but there is simply no denying that it is an ambitious & audacious effort that marks another huge leap for its up-n-coming filmmaker and is by all means a welcome entry in the genre of science-fiction.
The story of Annihilation follows a cellular biologist & former soldier who’s brought to a quarantined facility where a shimmering electromagnetic field has been spreading for three years. After learning that her own husband was part of an expedition that ventured into the anomaly now named “the shimmer”, she decides to join the next research team that’s headed there, and is recruited along with a psychologist, a physicist, a geomorphologist & a paramedic. But the deeper they delve into the shimmer, the more dangerous their mission becomes.
Written & directed by Alex Garland who commenced his filmmaking journey with the highly acclaimed Ex Machina, Annihilation is his sophomore effort yet it finds the new filmmaker playing with bold ideas & grandiose ambitions and unafraid to risk failure in the process. Garland aims for something bigger than his last feature but he’s unable to execute it with the same finesse & precision this time. A sense of mystery pervades the film from the very beginning and the build-up is effective but there are also few moments in it that feel out of place.
The plot doesn’t concern itself with explaining every little thing to the audience. Instead, it leaves many things open for interpretation, thus allowing the viewers to come up with their own theories, which is something not everyone in the audience is going to enjoy. But even when viewed as a straightforward sci-fi horror packed with metaphysical elements, the film makes up for a fairly gripping ride. The world inside the shimmer is as intriguing as it is psychedelic, the horror aspect is executed rather well, and the mystery is kept alive until the final reveal, which isn’t much.
Production design team contributes with finely carved & cleverly modified set pieces that defy the laws of nature, while the visual effects team does well to flourish the environment within the shimmer with details that really magnify its strangeness. Cinematography encapsulates the whole film with an overcast ambience but its vivid colour palette gives more vibrance to its images while the slow & silent camerawork provides a calm vibe to it. Editing unfolds the plot at an unhurried pace but there are few moments that feel forced or incompatible and then some that it could have done without. And also adding to its enigmatic aura is its hypnotic score.
Coming to the performances, Annihilation features a strong cast in Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny & Oscar Isaac. Leading from the front is Portman in the role of a former soldier & cellular biologist whose journey is what the story is about. Her lost, confused expressions mirror that of the audience but her input is deftly measured throughout. Jason Leigh delivers a commanding performance and often takes the limelight away from anyone sharing the space with her. All the characters present in the story are broken or recovering or suffering in their own ways and the ladies do well to portray that side accordingly.
On an overall scale, Annihilation is a bold, surreal & hallucinatory trip that takes the viewers on a mind-bending journey, poses a lot of questions, offers little explanation, and leaves them bewildered & pondering over its abstruse storyline in the end. Garland’s effort is commendable but the implementation of his ideas aren’t up to the mark. Characters are lacking in depth, their arcs aren’t well-defined & nothing about them is compelling enough to make us invest in their journey. This wouldn’t have been a drawback if the director was thoroughly focused on the scientific phenomenon but the fact that he keeps returning to our protagonist’s past life and still fails to make her relatable in any manner makes it a shortcoming. It’s a lot to grasp on the first time around and another viewing may be required. But for now, Annihilation is one cerebral & challenging feature that piques the curiosity in a way that’s difficult to resist. Definitely worth a shot. Multiple viewings advised.