The Mob’s Reel: ‘Annihilation’ Is a Bold, Unsettling Sci-Fi Thriller
The Mob’s Reel is a film column that features reviews and essays covering everything from the latest blockbusters to standout indies.
Loosely based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, Alex Garland’s Annihilation is a smart, white-knuckle science fiction thriller. Building upon the eerie slow-burn of his 2015 debut, Ex Machina, Garland’s more hallucinogenic sophomore effort is a challenging but rewarding film that shows little interest in holding the audience’s hand, particularly in its transfixing, dreamlike third act.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist tasked with exploring a strange ecosystem-altering phenomenon at the site of an alien crash landing. Lena and her fellow explorers (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny) experience horrific events as they attempt to determine how and why the crash zone has been experiencing a slowly-spreading biological takeover.
Annihilation is both disturbing and beautiful in ways that are difficult to articulate; I could point to the film’s terrifying hybrid creatures and unnatural plant life, but what really makes it all work is Garland’s emphasis on the psychological toll experienced by the main characters, whose minds and bodies are becoming entwined with the very phenomenon they’ve been tasked with investigating. Each of these women had already been wrestling with self-destructive tendencies, mirroring the ecological destruction happening all around them while also grounding the film in a tangible emotional space.
Perhaps the most discomfiting aspect of the film is Garland’s depiction of alien life as being truly unknowable and inexplicable; there are no clearly defined origins or motivations for what we encounter in the film, and there’s something deeply despairing about facing something so far beyond us that our minds can’t even begin to process it. It helps that Rob Porter’s trippy cinematography and Mark Digby’s production design work together to form an otherworldly beauty, while the ominous score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury is suitably haunting.
The cast is all-around solid; Portman exudes a focused stoicism that masks just how emotionally fractured she truly is, and Oscar Isaac gives an unnerving performance as Lena’s husband Kane. Tuva Novotny also leaves quite an impression, playing geologist Cass Sheppard with a soulful and somewhat mysterious aura.
Some might be frustrated by the director’s restrained and heady approach to the genre, but Annihilation is so unsettling and enigmatic that it lingers deep in the mind, cementing Alex Garland as one of the most fascinating and uncompromising science fiction filmmakers working today.