Alex Garland is known for his sci-fi scripts that have gone on to make memorable films like THE BEACH, 28 DAYS LATER, SUNSHINE, my favourite NEVER LET ME GO and EX MACHINA which he also directed. The latter brought him prominence and the chance to make his first big budget $55 million Hollywood movie. But the film was shelved 2 years ago after production was completed when Paramount was unsure what to do with the film after test audiences found it too ‘intellectual’.
By intellectual is meant ‘hard to follow’ and ‘difficult to make sense’. Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s award-winning novel, (supposedly the first of a trilogy) the film is filled with stunning visuals, scientific propositions and biological concepts of human and alien integration. The fact that plants can transform to another different type means that the idea of DNA integration is not that far-fetched.
The story can be simplified in a few lines. A biologist’s husband (Oscar Isaac) disappears while on a mission. He reappears suddenly out of the blue and begins going into convulsions as if possessed by aliens. Lena (Natalie Portman) puts her name forward for an expedition into an environmental disaster zone, but does not find what she is expecting. The expedition team is made up of herself, the biologist, a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an anthropologist, a surveyor and a linguist (Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny and Tessa Thompson).
Garland directs his film as a horror sci-fi. At times, ANNIHILATION plays like a cross between ARRIVAL and ALIEN. The horror scenes are particularly gory, Garland going all out to scare his audience. The best segment in the film is the one where a member of the previous crew gets his stomach cut open with a short, sharp knife to reveal his insides being occupied by some alien parasite. The scene ends up with a joke that had the entire audience laughing out loud in a second right after being grossed out to death. I cannot recall what was the joke but the change in mood shows Garland’s skill at playing with the audience’s emotions.
ANNIHILATION also marks a solid female film with a female heroine and a full female team saving the world.
It s true that the film becomes intellectual (there is even a debate on self-destruction vs. suicide) especially when the audience is expected to interpret the goings-on and what is happening with regards to the transformation of the expedition team. It is clear that only Janet survives on the inset (as she confesses to her interrogator (Benedict Wong) that the rest of her team are no more. Still, ANNIHILATION is suspenseful, scary and tense despite its relatively slow pacing. An additional bonus is the trippy visuals (the film perhaps being the perfect one to watch while on a brownie) and gorgeous photography, courtesy of D.P. Rob Hardy.
ANNIHILATION opens in Canada and the U.S. and internationally on Netflix after a few weeks. But this is a film that should be seen on the big screen but being on Netflix, would reach a larger audience, as Garland admitted.