When writer and director Alex Garland announced his follow-up to his acclaimed directorial debut ‘Ex Machina’ (2014), expectations were high. ‘Ex Machina’ had been a rare gem, a film that elevated a familiar concept with extraordinary craft and fascinating philosophical questions, all in a form that was still accessible and entertaining. Those expecting something similar though from ‘Annihilation’ were hit with a shock. This was not an equivalent follow-up but an elevation - in ambition, concept, craft and ideas. This was science fiction unbridled and uncompromising and overwhelming.
Like ‘Ex Machina’, the set-up isn’t entirely original - based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, ‘Annihilation’ follows a group of scientists (Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny) as they enter a mysterious phenomenon called The Shimmer, a zone of land defined by iridescent light, from which no previous team has ever returned. The wonder of ‘Annihilation’ is what it does with that concept, how it takes conventions and clichés and refracts them, alters them, takes the DNA of science fiction and morphs it into something entirely of its own. Diving into ‘Annihilation’ and into The Shimmer is a journey into the heart of darkness, a nightmare inversion of Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ (1979) through the lens of Francis Bacon, where the beautiful and the insane walk hand in hand. The visual scope of the film is staggering, its inventiveness thrilling, its conundrums baffling, its imagery a perverse nightmare. All of the pieces feel familiar, but the way that Garland fractures them leaves you in a state of captivated intrigue, bolstered by centring on a group of diverse, intelligent and capable women.
This team follows in the cinematic footsteps of those in ‘Predator’ (1987) or ‘Aliens’ (1986), but without the stink of hyper-masculinity clinging to everything they do. There’s both a refreshing emotional openness and an honest resilience to these women that contributes to the potential emotional impact of ‘Annihilation’, an impact that would arguably not be there if it were a team of men. It also helps that the team is made of five extraordinary actors, with the stunning-as-always Portman providing the narrative and emotional stability as Lena, whose connection with the mission is more dangerously personal. Each character is full in construction and the script gives each the opportunity to shine, Garland taking full advantage of the immensely talented ensemble he has gathered together.
‘Annihilation’ is one of those rare films that is both an intellectual experience and an entirely sensory one all at one. At times, it feels almost impenetrable, especially in its final extraordinary act, but as with ‘Stalker’ (the film it feels most akin to), you always get the sense that there is something pulsating behind every frame, that this film is thematically bigger than what we’re seeing (and what we’re seeing is pretty vast to begin with). And as much as the film expects its audience to keep up, it doesn’t forget them entirely. While Garland’s screenplay is erudite and lean, it’s the visual and aural storytelling that ultimately leads the film. More than anything, what resonates after ‘Annihilation’ is over is the experience of it, which makes the fact it was never released in cinemas in Australia all the more frustrating. This film is about as complete a cinematic experience as you could possibly want, with breathtaking cinematography and jaw-dropping design, astounding sound design and a hypnotically mysterious score, all directed with startling clarity of vision. It’s a film that wants to engulf you, swallow you whole and spit you out the other end. In that sense, it may be the one of the most overwhelming works of science fiction of the past decade, a thoroughly constructed vision of a fractured version of our reality where a perversion of the natural order speaks to who we are and what we are and what we might become.
I’ve revisited ‘Annihilation’ a number of times and with each viewing, the film becomes richer and more beguiling. This is a truly great work of science fiction, one that pushes the capabilities of the genre while mutating what came before. Rather than playing it safe after ‘Ex Machina’, Alex Garland goes in the opposite direction with a film that pushes him and his audience even further into the unknown, where the line between compassion and malice, beauty and horror, pure and perverse, natural and unnatural, human and inhuman disappear. It invites you in and challenges you at every turn, but always with a sense of frightening, scalpel-sharp clarity. In the years to come, I have no doubt we’ll be counting this startling film, deservedly, as a classic.
The visual scope of the film is staggering, its inventiveness thrilling, its conundrums baffling, its imagery a perverse nightmare.
PICTURE & SOUND
The complicated release history of ‘Annihilation’ is well-documented, and when the film was released internationally on Netflix, watching it only make the fact it never received an international cinema release all the more disappointing. After a long wait, Paramount is finally bringing it to home video outside of the United States, promising a higher definition picture and better sound.
The results though leave a lot to be desired. ‘Annihilation’ was shot digitally in 6K, so it’s a shock that the 1080p 2.39:1 transfer isn’t nearly as good as you would expect, especially for a film with such rich visual detail. There’s a kind of hazy desaturation to the colours that seems to rob the image of some of its fine detail, making it seem flat and indistinct. It’s not clear why this is the case (this doesn’t mirror the look of the Netflix streaming version), but it’s a disappointment. It’s a further disappointment that we’re not getting a 4K release like the U.S. or UK, as the image on that release is a revelation, one of the best presentations of a recent film that format has presented.
Thankfully the audio is another matter, with a rich and robust Dolby Atmos/Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track. This is where the immersion of ‘Annihilation’ really settles in, with a beautifully balanced and crystal clear sound design that enfolds you within it, and where score and design never overwhelm the dialogue. In the final act in particular, this track really kicks into gear, making it a thunderous home entertainment experience.
‘Annihilation’ comes with a really terrific collection of featurettes that cover the development and making of the film in great detail. They’re divided into three sections:
- Part 1: Southern Outreach includes ‘Refractions’ (11:20), which looks at the development of the film and the adaptation process, as well as the risk of a studio taking on such a cerebral science fiction project, and ‘For Those That Follow’ (15:04), which focuses on the core cast.
- Part 2: Area X includes ‘Shimmer’ (12:12), which covers the shoot, including the decision to film it as much in sequence as possible, as well as the design of the film, and ‘Vanished Into Havoc’ (15:03), which looks at how the practical and visual effects of the film worked together to create some of the major action set pieces.
- Part 3: To the Lighthouse includes ‘Unfathomable Mind’ (11:46), which focuses on the design and logic behind The Shimmer itself, while ‘The Last Phase’ (8:06) wraps everything up with the hoped cumulative effect of the film itself.
This is a really strong look at the making of ‘Annihilation’, the kind of material that should be standard and sadly isn’t. All of the major cast and crew are featured, along with fascinating behind-the-scenes footage and heaps of concept art. This isn’t the kind of film that would benefit from a commentary to explain it, but this series of featurettes just makes you appreciate even more what a thrilling experience ‘Annihilation’ is.