For the past five years, modern cinema has seen a resurgence of the cerebral sci-fi. Science-fiction that can be thrilling, terrifying and thoughtful all at once. The survival of a stranded astronaut living on potatoes (The Martian), a linguist learning the nuances of alien language (Arrival) and a look into the dystopian future of sentient androids (Blade Runner 2049)-these films engage and stimulate us on a level we rarely acquire. They reach out, grab our attention and toss preconceived notions of what is, and what could be, to the wind. They create.
As part of this renaissance, writer/director Alex Garland is one of the leading minds. With his 2015 look into the future of artificial intelligence, Ex Machina, Garland set the tone for what science-fiction could be. And, with the premiere of Annihilation, Garland continues to push those same boundaries.
Based on Jeff VanderMeer's best-selling Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation puts Lena (Natalie Portman) on an expedition into the mysterious and misunderstood anomaly that has been labeled the Shimmer. In the wake of a catastrophic event, the Shimmer has encompassed an area of coastline and surrounding swampland, constructing an iridescent border around itself. Left under the control and guard of a governmental shadow organization, led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the Shimmer-and the world now contained inside of it-have become the subjects of investigation, experimentation and conspiracy, being labeled as "environmental disasters" and quarantined off from the rest of the unsuspecting world.
As experimentation and exploration of the anomaly continue, one thing becomes clear: If you go in, there's no coming out. That is, until lone expedition member Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns home without the knowledge of those guarding the border or his wife, Lena. With Kane seemingly wiped of all memory and now afflicted and dying of an unknown sickness, Kane and Lena are swept up by the organization and carted off to be examined and quarantined themselves. After realizing Lena's possible value to the organization, the veil is temporarily lifted for her to join their ranks. With her husband now comatose, Lena volunteers alongside Ventress and three other specialized expedition members-Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (Tessa Thompson)-to venture into the Shimmer in search of answers.
The world outside the Shimmer is dull and sterile, with a yellowish tinge, to convey the idea of a subtle, warm decay. It isn't a cold world, necessarily-just one that is vastly underwhelming in comparison to the world contained inside the Shimmer. This is a smart juxtaposition, making the expedition's thrust into the Shimmer all the more awe-inspiring. Shot with the same softness that was exhibited in Ex Machina, the world inside the border glows and almost shimmers with the essence of life. Nature has reclaimed domain over the area and mutated with what's inside to create an altogether grotesque, yet beautiful, assimilation of life with everything else. Even still, just like the center of a compost pile in a garden, the decay of one life is what leads to the creation of another.
As the expedition carries on deeper into the maw of the newly formed ecosystem, assimilation becomes invasive and horrific, leading the group to wonder if what they think they know as truth has any attachment to reality anymore. It brings forth the discussion of how people interpret what they see or hear or experience as being malicious or evil. What is the antagonist's true motivation or goal? Can we really find fault in the actions of a creature or ecosystem simply trying to survive?
The performances are strong across the board, with Portman, Leigh and Isaac staying subdued in a manner that doesn't pull you out of the world. As an adaption of VanderMeer's trilogy of Lovecraftian sci-fi horror, the film stands alone. The books are used as more of a jumping-off point, avoiding a word-for-word retelling of the narrative. Much like with Lovecraft and classical sci-fi/horror, translating that ilk of existential dread to film can be tricky, but Garland has accomplished it well. The film warps your perception of reality and leaves you teeming with thoughts, as a healthy dose of ambiguity and subtle hints surround the narrative with clarity and confusion simultaneously.
As with most films that don't have the usual blockbuster fare of laser fights, bikini-clad vixens or the Marvel logo, Annihilation is likely to give a subpar performance at the box office. This isn't to say block-bustering, popcorn-stuffing films aren't good or can't be thought-provoking or endearing-it's just a pity to see another rare, thought-provoking and beautiful film fall by the wayside because there aren't enough seats being filled.