“Annihilation” is something we do not see everyday: a smart, intelligent SF film packed with mood and ideas. While it may require some patience from you due to not only its glacial narrative pacing but also the baffling ambiguity surrounding its premise, it will impress you with a number of engrossing moments of awe and mystery, and you will eventually appreciate how much it is willing to be challenging and though-provoking in many aspects.
During the opening scene, we see a small meteor falling onto some beach area in US. Right after the meteor hit a lighthouse near the beach, a mysterious electromagnetic field nicknamed ‘The Shimmer’ was generated, and the US government has monitored the Shimmer after blocking the area from the world outside, but there has not been much progress during next three years. Several teams of soldiers were sent into the Shimmer, but they all did not return without any message, and the Shimmer continues to expand its region as before.
And then a weird thing happens on one day. A soldier named Kane (Oscar Isaac), who was sent into the Shimmer along with several other soldiers around one year ago, suddenly appears in his house, and his wife Lena (Natalie Portman) is certainly surprised by this. She has still struggled with her husband’s sudden disappearance, but now he is back, and she does not know what to do as sensing something odd from her husband, who looks mostly fine on the surface but flatly says that he does not remember what happened to him or how the hell he came back to his house.
Anyway, their situation is abruptly changed not long after that, and Lena soon finds herself inside an army base built near the Shimmer. From Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Lena comes to learn more about the Shimmer, and she is eventually allowed to join a new expedition team as a biology expert with considerable military experience. Besides Dr. Ventress, there are Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Josie Radek (Tessa Thomspon), and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and Lena instantly gets closer to these three team members during her first encounter with them, though she chooses not to reveal her personal relationship with Kane to them.
Once Lena and other team members leave the base and then go through the visible barrier of the Shimmer, they come to see that they are in a very extraordinary circumstance which may also be quite dangerous. Because of the electromagnetic distortion caused by the Shimmer, they are virtually cut off from the outside, and they become more aware of the mysterious aura hovering over the region of the Shimmer. At one point, they are surprised by how the Shimmer distorts their sense of time, and that is just the beginning of what they are going to experience as they go deeper into its region for reaching to their final destination.
For not spoiling your entertainment, I will not go further into details here, but I can tell you instead that the movie constantly engages and intrigues us via its palpable atmosphere and tension. Although we keep wondering about what is exactly going on around its main characters, the movie steadily holds our attention as slowly accumulating its narrative momentums, and there are also a few effective moments which will definitely catch you off guard. Cinematographer Rob Hardy did a commendable job of establishing the swampy alien atmosphere on the screen, and the score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow adds extra nervousness to the growing tension behind the screen,
As its main character move from one place to another in their increasingly perilous journey, the movie provides to us several striking visual moments somewhere between Frances Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979) and “Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker” (1979). While the special effects in the movie may look modest compare to what we usually see from blockbuster films, they are succinctly used for intended dramatic effects, and I particularly like one certain scene which reminded me of J.G. Ballard’s SF novel “The Crystal World”.
Thanks to its good main cast members, the movie also works on the emotional level. As the center of the movie, Natalie Portman is convincing in her character’s gradual emotional development along the story, and she and Oscar Isaac are believable in several intimate flashback scenes between their characters. Jennifer Jason Leigh, who has recently rejuvenated her career through her Oscar-nominated turn in “The Hateful Eight” (2015), is compelling with her seemingly detached attitude, and Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny also hold their own places well around Portman.
“Annihilation”, which was released in US around the end of last month and then recently released outside US via Netflix a few days ago, is based on the SF novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, which is the first book of the Southern Rich trilogy. I have not read the novel yet, but, as far as I can see, director/adapter Alex Garland succeeds in making a very interesting work from VanderMeer’s novel, and I was really surprised as finding myself more involved in its mood and narrative than expected. Like Garland’s previous film “Ex Machina” (2015), this is one of more memorable SF films during this decade, and I think you should not miss its unforgettable experience at any chance.