I loved director Alex Garland’s debut Ex Machina so I was clearly excited for his follow up. I had hopes that Annihilation would be another sophisticated and intelligent genre piece equal to his first movie. Mind you, I have seen too many exciting new film makers pick up bigger budget projects only to turn in total duds so my optimism was of the cautious kind. Also when Netflix picked up the UK and European distribution, keeping it out of cinemas on this side of the Atlantic, that wasn’t a good sign. Netflix are getting a bit of a reputation for handling films that the studios suddenly have no faith in. Straight to Netflix is, in many respects, the new straight to DVD.
Well, I needn’t have worried; I loved Ex Machina and I loved this too. Annihilation is a spectacular movie and it is a real shame that most people over here will only be watching it on TV because the imagery is wonderful and the design intricate. I suspect the suits at Skydance Pictures and Paramount saw the last twenty minutes and bottled it, as this is where things get really trippy, but what they produced is a powerful, captivating, intriguing, surprising, often disturbing but constantly thought provoking film. Landing this is a huge win for everyone’s favourite streaming service and subscribers can share in the spoils. They’ve thrown their Netflix wide this year and this is their biggest catch. Annihilation is a brilliant example of the type of really smart science fiction that we all too rarely see and actually we’ve never seen anything quite like this. This movie is to 2018 as 2001 was to 1968.
It may be the similarity contemplative nature of Blade Runner 2049 and its subsequent disappointing box office that has resulted in this showing on the box. Frankly though if something as bonkers as Aronofsky’s Mother! can put bums on cinema seats then I’m sure this would have been fine. It is thoughtful and original but it isn’t inaccessible. The film starts with the old ‘a meteorite hits the earth and brings something with it’ idea and it does use the line ‘people have gone in but no one has come out’ but it quickly moves way way beyond cliché. In the story a soapy bubble has grown around the impact point (in the film they call it ‘the shimmer’) and strange things are happening to the environment inside.
I don’t want to spoil the surprise of what Natalie Portman and her crew find but it is by turns enchanting and creepy. We’ve seen plenty of sci-fi movies where things don’t obey the laws of physics but here they defy the laws of biology and chemistry. Psychology is explored too as the band of explorers begin to also examine the human condition. There is much going on on the surface of this movie and this in itself is enough to justify a viewing but there is also plenty to read in to it and it is this that will leave you thinking long after the credits have rolled. Questions around what the Shimmer may represent; disease, depression, environmental destruction, self loathing, will be discussed for years and it is this that makes it bigger than the screen it plays on, no matter the size.
The Ripley Factor:
Notably that band are all women which is only really obvious in a couple of places. It is neatly highlighted, addressed and thrown aside in one small interchange in the dialogue:
‘You’re going in, all four of you?’
Quite right too, gender shouldn’t be an issue but nonetheless when you see five women in combat fatigues carrying machine guns into the undergrowth it juxtaposes all those manly ‘Nam films. It’s a welcome step towards equality and it makes a lot less noise about turning conventions on their head than the latest Ghostbusters.
Is this one for the kids?
Of course if you start playing with biology then you get mutations and while some of these are beautiful, others are more than a little unpleasant. The film certainly earns its 15 certificate. It isn’t for people that don’t want to see bodies coming apart.