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COLUMN: "Annihilation" defies expectation



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Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotnyin appear in the 2018 film "Annihilation." The science fiction horror film is written and directed by Alex Garland.  Movie Stills Database Buy Photos

Writer and director Alex Garland is no stranger to high-concept science fiction. 

He stunned audiences with his riveting directorial debut, “Ex Machina,” a show-stopping chamber piece clad in science fiction trappings that belied its deeply human identity, but the filmmaker has been churning out high quality work for years, on and off the screen. 

The prolific science fiction auteur first made a name for himself as a novelist, but later began writing for the screen with such works as Danny Boyle’s sci-fi thrillers “28 Days Later" and "Sunshine.” 

Thus, it’s no surprise that Garland is somewhat of a genius when it comes to the genre, and with his new film, “Annihilation,” a loose adaptation of the Jeff VanderMeer novel of the same name, he cements himself as one of the most exciting new voices Hollywood has seen in quite some time. 

“Annihilation” follows a biologist, Lena, played by Natalie Portman, who joins a team of four other female scientists as they mount an expedition into an uncharted area dubbed “The Shimmer” by the government scientists studying it. The region is cut off from the rest of the world by a massive, colorful force-field of sorts, and its origins, as the characters speculate, are likely alien. 

The catch? No one has ever returned alive, save for Lena’s husband, who returned infected by an unknown and incurable disease, motivating her to enter The Shimmer in search of answers.

Like the best science fiction films – some of Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick’s finest come to mind – “Annihilation’s” premise conceals its true identity. It’s a film less concerned with alien plagues and contamination zones than with profound introspection and cutting analysis of the human condition. 

That isn’t to say, however, that Garland doesn’t bolster his film with a couple standout action sequences and several bouts of ferociously intense horror. 

As a science fiction film, it feels perfectly outfitted to offer audiences the best of both worlds. The mysterious Shimmer offers the allure of both a captivating science fiction landscape rife with most of the action that entails, but also a stunning metaphor for the human condition and the frightening capacity to self-destruct that’s buried within us all. 

What Garland has crafted here is something genuinely special: a science fiction film that boasts the scariest extraterrestrial thrills since Ridley Scott’s bone-chilling horror classic, “Alien,” and the deeply thought-provoking, acid-trip psychedelia of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” 

It’s not without its faults, nor does it feel as liberated from genre conventions as one might hope for the works of an up-and-coming auteur like Garland to be. But it’s a stellar sophomore feature and an instant genre classic, to boot. 

Garland’s film is specially poised within the canon of big-screen science fiction. It is, by all accounts, an auteurist piece, one that feels completely unconcerned with mainstream appeal or conformity, and yet it’s also bolstered by a budget of $40 million. As such, it’s perfectly equipped to supply Garland’s particular brand of tension-infused introspection in the most thrilling and beautiful of fashions.

And oh, what a beautiful film this is. 

On a purely visual level, “Annihilation” is one of the most strikingly distinct films to worm its way out of the Hollywood studio machine in years. Its colors are bold where those of traditional blockbuster fare are muted, vibrant where others are desaturated. Due credit must go to cinematographer Rob Hardy, but also to production designer Mark Digby, who serves up some of the most genuinely inspired creature designs since H.R. Giger’s work on the original “Alien.” 

There are gargantuan mutant crocodiles, flowers growing in the form of the human body, a bear creature – which features in one of the film’s most terrifically thrilling sequences – and all sorts of other frightening and otherworldly flora and fauna. But perhaps most crucially, most vitally, it’s all lensed with beautiful precision.

The film’s visual palette lends a nice contrast to its grim and occasionally haunting mood. There’s a clear sense of mounting terror surrounding the protagonists at all times, but there’s also a devilish sense of wonder. It’s a descent into hell, painted in rich greens and lustrous pinks. Rarely has such horror carried such allure.

That particular contrast bolsters what is perhaps the film’s strongest and most wildly compelling facet, its wild surrealism. Make no mistake, Garland is no David Lynch, nor is he the next Stanley Kubrick, but with “Annihilation,” he pushes the boundaries of studio filmmaking to create a picture that’s unexpectedly trippy and ferociously psychedelic.

Undoubtedly, some viewers may find themselves alienated by the film’s dreamlike narrative. Its structure rejects the comfort of narrative conventions, and for viewers willing to meet Garland on his own delectably strange wavelength, “Annihilation” is one hell of a ride.

As a horror film, it’s frequently invigorating and quite often thrilling. Occasionally it falters, and occasionally Garland’s vision feels too quick to conform to the hallmarks of the genre. there’s a particular stretch of the film’s second act that leans too far into monster movie tropes, leaving a lingering feeling that maybe “Annihilation” is more preoccupied with gruesome deaths than with weighty themes or deep introspection.

But the sequence is brief, and admittedly, more often than not, it’s also quite thrilling – look out for one of the most frightening movie monsters this side of the Xenomorph – and the film quickly rights itself. By the picture’s brilliant climax, it’s easy to forgive such a misstep, and in the face of such wildly inventive and bold filmmaking, the film’s few shortcomings seem relatively insignificant.

“Annihilation” is a triumph of genre filmmaking. It’s refreshing to see a science fiction film that’s willing to venture beyond convention, to defy expectations and dazzle with ravaging psychedelia. Garland serves up twisted thrills in droves, but he also delivers profound ideas and breathtaking visuals. 

There’s rarely a moment in the film that doesn’t feel deeply meaningful, or at least underscored by ideas and intents beyond simple entertainment. “Annihilation” may not be a perfect film, but it delivers an absolutely unforgettable finale, and it’s a tremendous leap forward for studio filmmaking. Garland is an exciting voice, and his next film can’t come soon enough. 

Come for the visuals and sci-fi horror, stay for the stunning surrealism and captivating thematic preoccupations.

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