Alex Garland has been quietly doing some great work for a while now. From screenplays for 28 Days Later, Dredd and Sunshine to his directorial debut in Ex Machina, he has been putting his spin onto lots of decent projects.
Annihilation is a (loose) adaptation of Jeff Vandermeer’s novel of the same name (which is actually the first part of a trilogy of books around the Southern Reach topic). It follows Lena, a biologist, as she joins an expedition into a mysterious region called Area X, a mysterious region where multiple parties have entered but never left. Surrounded by the Shimmer (what looks like an oily, multi-coloured shell) the authorities want to know what is happening within this area and what they can do to stop it’s growing advance.
Mixing fantastic visual effects with action and suspense, Garland has himself a winner here. Mixing nature with the alien, adding flashes of colour and flora to almost everything brings us into Area X, something recognisable but different.
Natalie Portman is playing the role of Lena and she is absolutely wonderful. Heartfelt, driven, vulnerable but also lost. All of these characteristics come out during this films runtime. Alongside Lena in her expedition we have Jennifer Jason Leigh as the leader and psychologist Dr Ventress (although this is not quite the role that she has in the book). Making up this all-female expedition there are Tessa Thompson as Josie Radek (physicist), Gina Rodriguez as Anya Thorensen (paramedic) and Tuva Novotny as Cass Sheppard (surveyor and geologist). All play their roles well and add something to the atmosphere and story in a different way.
The score both fits well at times and others it grates a little, being at cross purposes to what is playing out on the screen and bringing you out of the action. Cinematography and visual effects cannot be faulted throughout and there are many examples of astounding images throughout. Garland’s effect isn’t quite as obvious in this as it was in Ex Machina but his use of the environment, this unknown thing that is changing everything it touches, as the extra character is so good.
The end deviates quite a bit from the book, to fit Garland’s narrative that this is an only film, not the beginning of a trilogy, and it works here but also on the flip side it is sad that this rich world won’t be explored any more. Bt for the meantime there is plenty to be gotten from this excellent foray into the unknown.