If you were disappointed by the promised sci-fi thrill and star power of something like Cloverfield Paradox, you might be in luck with Alex Garland’s Annihilation, due in theaters on Friday. The Ex Machina director returns to the genre, this time with a winsome cast of women (and his constant, Oscar Isaac) to adapt Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel.
Early reviews of the film are positive, particularly in regard to how Garland builds suspense and uses his cast. For more on what critics thought of Annihilation, read on.
An unconventional adaptation
The annihilation of the film’s title is the self-directed kind, and it’s working on a molecular level, even when the Hollywood narrative trappings of the film let it down. The film is drastically different from VanderMeer’s book, but it’s also about something that can’t be uttered, and, accordingly, Garland goes silent for the film’s stunning finale. Something at the intersection of the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey and modern dance, it left me breathless with its unforgiving depiction of the relentless weight of depression; the impulse to self-destruct.
To call “Annihilation” an “adaptation” doesn’t really do either the book or the film justice. Written before the sequels even existed, Garland’s script seizes on key ideas from VanderMeer’s novel, but spins them in entirely new directions, using the source as a kind of leaping-off point (even the opening meteor detail is a bit of a departure, albeit one with rich other-worldly implications) from which five tough women have a chance to make first contact with this alien presence, and perhaps save the human race in the process.
While reportedly taking giant left turns from its source material, there’s still something admirably uncompromising about Annihilation. The well-trodden formula of a group of experts/soldiers/horny teens being picked off by a malevolent force is structurally present but it’s not presented in the same generic package we’ve grown tired with. Garland has far more on his mind than how to creatively dispatch a list of ciphers and his film is wonderfully unknowable, a crackling tension underpinning the unpredictable narrative. There’s an unnerving chill about the horror that lies ahead because we’re never really sure what form it will take.
The killer cast of ladies
All the characters get a chance to make a strong impression. Leigh, last prominently seen on the big screen spewing obscenities and blood in The Hateful Eight, could scarcely be more different here as the tough, watchful, oddly edgy group commander, while Thompson gets a few good verbal licks in.
But Portman remains the chief among relative equals, both because she’s the star and because her character has the connection to the only known survivor of the Shimmer to date. The actress may not be the physical equal of some of the others, but she compellingly conveys Lena’s fierce determination to both figure out what happened to her husband and solve the mystery of this colorful but terrifying unknown force of nature.
Portman is a strident, fiercely compelling presence, investing us in both her mission and her interlinked marriage (flashbacks to her relationship with Isaac are surprisingly sweet, witty and sexy), providing an emotional center without the need for sentimentality. As the secretive psychologist of the group, Leigh proves perfectly cast, hypnotically hard to read, a performance so well-measured and tantalizingly restrained that it’s criminal we don’t see her on screen more often. There’s also great work from their other crew members played by Gina Rodriguez, so charming in Jane the Virgin and so striking here, Tessa Thompson, quietly affecting and deserving of her Bafta-nominated rising star status and Swedish actor Tuva Nuvotny who makes a piercing impression in a small role.
The cast is solid, especially the core group of actresses — Rodriguez, especially, is noteworthy as a complicated butt-kicker who’s a welcome departure from her good-girl Jane the Virgin role. The women…are all broken in some way, and their quest is a therapy session of sorts that unveils emotional and physical wounds. The talent provide the needed emotional center in this scientifically bonkers scenario, and while the movie doesn’t make a big deal of it, a band of very capable scientists who happen to be women is a welcome sight in the mostly male-dominated sci-fi genre.
The end result
It’s a smart approach that rewards the audience’s intelligence, rather than overwhelming them with conventional exposition, and keeps viewers leaning forward in their seats, searching for clues as to what the Shimmer represents — when in fact, its effectiveness will vary wildly according to how different individuals choose to interpret it…by leaving things open-ended, Garland raises questions beyond those of VanderMeer’s novel, shifting the focus away from hard science toward the psychology of his characters, and introduces a compelling dilemma, à la “Arrival,” that gives the film a welcome philosophical depth.
In the much-anticipated follow-up to his auspicious debut feature Ex Machina four years ago, writer-director Alex Garland shows an unerring hand in building a sense of unease about what evil lurks in a forest that’s been taken over by some kind of “other,” and then making it pay off. Fright fans as well as connoisseurs of seriously good filmmaking should turn this finely tuned thriller into a much-needed hit for Paramount and, as the remaining two entries in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy have already been published, the studio should get the next film installment rolling post haste.
Garland’s plot is relentless with its terror and deep immersion in a familiar world that’s been tweaked into something else altogether. There’s almost no levity, other than some happier times spent with Lena and Kane during the film’s non-linear narrative. Things also get a little muddled heading into Annihilation‘s climax, but it’s forgivable in a story so admirably confident in its outrageousness.
Annihilation hits theaters Feb. 23.