On Wednesday, the OWA team was lucky enough to catch an advance screening of ANNIHILATION, Alex Garland's latest heady SciFi opus (fittingly at Galaxy Highland, which will always have a soft spot in our collective heart for being our festival home for the first two years). Being someone who has to let a film marinate for at least a day after watching it, I'm finally putting pen to paper (no not literally, I'm a millennial and can't imagine writing an essay by hand). In what's already a deluge of ANNIHILATION reviews all over the Interwebs, I toss my two cents in for good measure.
***Warning: Vague Spoilers Ahead***
HOLY HELL ALEX GARLAND'S DONE IT AGAIN, CEREBRAL MASTERPIECE OF EPIC PROPORTIONS! Spoiler alert, that's going to be the conclusion of this review. I say this because the film itself also starts with mild spoilers (who lives & who dies), yet despite this - or maybe because of it -- the ensuing story feels all the more suspenseful.
One of the most noticeable things you'll see right away is the almost entirely female cast. To its credit, ANNIHILATION briefly acknowledges this switch-up in traditional protagonist gender without dwelling on it or being self-congratulatory. True, it's revealed that all-male military teams have gone into the "Shimmer "(the film's alien world that has invaded and threatens to slowly take over Earth) in the past without ever returning, so the military base is trying a different tack: sending a team of all scientists in. But the fact that they're all female is not necessarily the point; the new tactic is brains over brawn (I guess you could genderize this if you want, but I find that too simplifying).
It's not a "girl power" movie per se, but a film about the destructive tendencies of human nature overall. Each member of the team that enters the Shimmer is damaged goods in some way (you'd have to be to agree to a suicide mission where no one's come out alive, right?) But the film makes the right move in keeping most of their problems vague. I appreciated, as the viewer, to be given room to draw my own conclusions. The characters all internalize their personal demons, and, being human, it's surely not just one thing or event that makes them hurt, anyway. Otherwise, in the picking-off of team members that follows, their demises could be too literally connected to their "problem," and in reality it's of course not that simple. An exception to this is perhaps Natalie Portman's Lena, who is our hero so we need to care about her relationship with her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). But even her flashbacks don't spell everything out. As the team ventures further into this alien atmosphere, encountering various violence and confusion, you're left to watch and wallow in your own thoughts of personal demons and self-fulfilling prophecies. This makes it sound like a really unpleasant watching experience, but I promise it's not.
Like past Garland films (EX MACHINA, 28 DAYS LATER), ANNIHILATION toes an excellent line of suspense-building and action. Indeed, there's large lengths of time where...not much happens. But the dread mounts (perhaps in part because of the aforementioned spoiler of who gets out alive), and every once in a while you're hit with a sudden moment of violence that knocks you on your ass. Then, like the characters, you gather yourself up and get ready for the next sucker punch, whenever that will be. Also true to Garland form, the film hits a climax where everything is revealed, which I suppose could either ruin it for you or help you connect the dots of the past 60 minutes of story-building.
Honestly, there are just so many reasons to see this film. Instead of the heroic husband embarking on a dangerous journey to save his ailing wife, it's the other way around. I saw some of the best creature design I've seen in awhile (particularly the team's face-off with a bear, which is creepy and deeply satisfying, not least because of what the alien environment has done to the bear...) The strangely acoustic soundtrack (hey there Crosby Stills & Nash) sets a tone right from the start that is different than any SciFi movie I've seen. The ending is unapologetically psychadelic, remniscent of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. And Tessa Thompson's my girl (seriously, she picks the best films to be in!) If you take nothing else away from the review, hear this: ANNIHILATION is exactly what you'd expect of a new Alex Garland film: ambitious, introspective, kinda navel-gazey, haunting. That's a good thing.