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Review: Annihilation – “Intelligent and thought-provoking science fiction.”

Annihilation is the latest film from Alex Garland. He directed the excellent sci-fi film, Ex Machina. This new one is an adaptation  of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, Annihilation.

As with his previous film, Garland has brought us another great piece of intelligent and thought-provoking science fiction. However, Paramount decided to only give it a cinematic release in the US and threw it straight onto Netflix here in the UK and other countries. Apparently, this is because test screenings for the film suggested mainstream audiences found it overly chilly and intellectually complex. That is why we cannot have nice things!

Here is the synopsis:

Lena, a biologist and former soldier, joins a mission to uncover what happened to her husband inside Area X – a sinister and mysterious phenomenon that is expanding across the American coastline. Once inside, the expedition discovers a world of mutated landscape and creatures, as dangerous as it is beautiful, that threatens both their lives and their sanity.

The film is led by a diverse all-female cast – Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny and Tessa Thompson. Oscar Isaac has a small supporting role, but we follow Natalie Portman and the team as they investigate The Shimmer. Everyone of their characters is either a scientist or a specialist in their particular field. This is all great to see. I am surprised the mainstream media have not been referencing it more with all the recent events going on in Hollywood. That’s a discussion for another time, let’s get on with the review.

First of all the film looks fantastic, but would have been so much better on the big screen. Most of the film takes place in the great outdoors. Forests, clearings, swampland and more. The composition of some shots is breathtaking and, while it is cool being able to sit back in your own home to watch it, I cannot help but feel that this would have been an incredible cinematic experience.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film and it had elements of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, John Carpenter’s The Thing and a touch of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space.

As with all of those things, we are not given simple answers to what is going on. We simply have to witness the events and make our own interpretation. I can understand that if you were in the mood for an action-packed type sci-fi movie then this would not be the one to choose. However, when you fancied something that would make you pay attention and think about life, the universe and everything then this would be a good film to put one.

Minor spoilers ahead.

For me, it seems like the alien outside force is akin to a cancer, and that is a running theme throughout the film, that is changing everything it touches and will eventually destroy all there is….but I could be wrong and you may well have a widely different view of things.

Having read the book on which it is based there have been a few changes, but none that irritated me. It was simply another expedition into The Shimmer.

The cast work well together and there are quite a few scenes without any dialogue. You get their sense of disorientation and panic as they realise what could be happening to them and everything around them. I sometimes feel that Natalie Portman’s acting can seem a little flat. However, when that happened in Annihilation it kind of fit with the context of the film.

The scenes of the expedition worked the best for me. They were interspersed with flashbacks to Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac’s life before they were involved with Area X. I could understand why this was done, but they pulled me out of the film a little everytime they happened. I also felt it was a mistake to start with the interview/interrogation of Portman’s character once she had escaped from The Shimmer. That took away some of the elements of surprise and uneasiness later in the film.

The film does an excellent job of portraying the truly alien. We have no idea what this thing wants or even if it is aware of anything. There are no simple answers on this trip!

It also has some wonderfully creepy and horrific moment. In particular, the scene of the bear screaming “help me,” with a woman’s stolen voice worked extremely well. I would have liked a few more moments along those lines and would have happily spent more time seeing the group exploring and uncovering other strange things within The Shimmer. The ending did seem to have a redundant kind of twist to it, although nothing too distracting.

All in all, a great movie that has stayed with me and left me pondering about the events within.

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