Reviewed by: Harry H.
Alex Garland has served up some pretty nifty science fiction epics, with past successes including 28 Days Later, Dredd (2012) and Ex Machina – but a sci-fi/horror which isn’t set in space? It almost seems a strange change of pace.
In fact; the term ‘horror’ can be used quite loosely as, while Annihilation certainly has its horrifying moments, these are not the driving force of the film. There are even moments where science fiction makes way for elements of dramatism to take bloom. There isn’t a huge amount of characters and the film very deliberately takes the time to ensure each one is crafted and developed well enough for us to understand their motives and take interest in their individual arcs.
This isn’t dissimilar to Ex Machina, Garland’s writing and directorial debut. That was a seriously successful film, earning a thumbs-up from both fans and critics, and more awards and nominations than you could shake a stick at.
Some early promise for Annihilation then? Is Garland a welcome director? Critics certainly seem to think so, with solid reviews pouring in from all sides. Fans are also in agreement, with a 78% approval rating from Google users, and it’s also been trending well on its home site, Netflix.
The story of how Annihilation came to be a Netflix original is, itself, an interesting one. After the initial audience test-screenings, Annihilation was deemed ‘too complicated’ and ‘too intellectual’, prompting some of the folks at Paramount to call for it be changed and made more mainstream. Garland and the film’s producer wanted to keep it the same, so long-story-short, Netflix buys the film, releases it and tell the rest of the world it’s theirs, while Paramount handles the US and China releases.
I’d certainly agree that it’s not a mainstream film; Natalie Portman’s lead character seemingly has quite a harsh personality, with immediate potential to divide audiences’ opinions of her. But the way she portrays grief and mourning is exponentially human; indignantly so in some cases. Also, the concept, when revealed, is a bit of a mind-boggler, making way for one of the weirdest, yet inspired, final 20 minutes of any film I’ve seen. ‘Unique’ is probably the simplest way to put it.
A very prominent aspect of the film is the visuals. With a wide array of both physical and computer generated effects, there are many scenes that are a true spectacle to behold. This isn’t always a the case, however, as the CGI falls flat in a few scenes and the insanity of throwing as many colours as dimensionally possible into a single shot, topped off with a cute instagram filter is nothing short of – well, insane! Or perhaps the surreal imagery merely reflects the film’s surreal concept, as in the moments where the special effects hold up (mainly the physical effects), you can see the beauty the filmmakers wanted you to see (as well as some imagery that’s vaguely reminiscence of a Windows 98 screensaver).
Horror fans may be happy to see that there’s no ‘slasher-fodder’ in our small band of all-female characters. Yes, people die in Annihilation, but every death serves a purpose in showcasing and developing the film’s main idea. Most horrific. Some glorious. All relevant.
Does the film have a re-watch factor? Not really. Fan theorists and people wanting to clarify a few minor details may go back for round two, but when you’ve seen it once, only the prominent scenes keep you interested. Remember the dramatism side I’d mentioned earlier? Second time around, it’s just a bit dull.
But overall, this is a unique and truly inspired piece of cinematography. Annihilation is an overview of shattered serenity; beautiful almost everywhere you look, but with poison just below the surface. It is what it wants to be, perhaps ironically given the situation, and will most likely be remembered as a cult classic.
It’s a shame that Paramount wanted it to be different; films shouldn’t have to follow the ‘mainstream’ to gain popularity. Garland has shown us that people are drawn to the different, the strange and the bizarre with his previous offerings, and has done the same with his inspired vision in Annihilation. Groundbreaking material doesn’t stem from comfort nor familiarity, and it’s heartbreaking to consider the fact that this film has fallen under the radar because someone thought we wouldn’t be ‘intellectual’ enough to appreciate it. If Paramount only had the confidence they should have, this film would have a hit!
This isn’t the end of Alex Garland – he’s just getting started and I certainly hope that this kerfuffle with Annihilation’s distribution/production hasn’t hindered his drive to continue creating great movies.
Verdict: Mind-bending. Bone-breaking. Soul-shaking.