SPOILER ALERT: This movie DEFINITELY lends itself to spoilers, so I'd advise against reading the review if you haven't seen this film. And I highly encourage you to see this film - especially if you get the chance to see it in the theater. However, it has some mature content, so you may want to skip down to the end for a quick discussion on the film's content.
The phrase "mind-blowing" gets thrown around a lot these days - especially when it comes to movies. Often, we use it describe something that was technically or visually stunning (a film like The Revenant, for example), particularly thought-provoking (like Arrival) or a mixture of both (movies like Inception or Interstellar).
I'm not sure I've ever had a film experience that fits the phrase quite like the one I had upon first seeing Annihilation.
Films like Annihilation always make me consider what we want movies to be all about. Lots of people want movies to be escapes from reality - a story that they can get caught up in to push away the cares of life for a couple hours. I won't deny that there are some films that do this with quality. But personally, I'd rather a film help me consider and work through the cares of life rather than forget them.
One of the many impressive feats of Annihilation is that it's really a film that offers both - escapism and a mirror for the human condition.
This is a film with ambition and something to say. I, for one, give films like this credit for attempting to do more than the average. And average is certainly not a word you'd ever find within a hundred miles of this movie.
The film focuses on Lena (Natalie Portman), a cellular biology professor and former Army solider. It opens with her being questioned in a quarantined room after returning from an expedition from which she was the sole survivor. We then flash back, and find that Lena's husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), had been sent on a mission with his special forces team and has been missing for over a year. Lena believes him to be dead. A colleague of hers named Daniel (David Gyasi), while inviting her to a dinner party, says that doing so would not hurt his memory. It's clear that Kane is dead.
That is, until we see him walking up the stairs of Lena's house. This is our first hint that something weird is going on. But it's far from the last time that this film will put us on the spectrum of head scratching to downright, jaw-dropping disbelief.
We quickly realize that all is not well with Kane. Lena rushes him to the hospital, but they are overtaken by the authorities on their way. It seems that Kane was caught up in some top-secret stuff. Lena then finds herself on the brink of something neither she nor anyone else could have expected.
This is a film that is meant to be seen in the theater. Its cinematography and incredible visuals jump off the big screen in a way that I just can't imagine can be duplicated at home. I should know, I saw the film twice in the theater - it was just too much to wrap my head around with only one trip.
Unfortunately, audiences around the globe will not get that chance. The studio decided (after seeing paltry box office numbers upon the film's release) that it was too heady for audiences. In an attempt at staving off an utter bomb, the studio distributed the film via Netflix outside of the U.S. and Canada - meaning that it will go directly to streaming without a theatrical run overseas. This article by Zack Sharf at Indiewire explains the situation in great detail.
I hope that audiences can appreciate a film like this. When so much of what we see in theaters these days are retreads of stories we can recite almost by heart, it is refreshing to see something so astounding and original. This film - which is an adaptation by Alex Garland of the novel by Jeff VanderMeer - left me with my mouth literally agape by the time I walked out of the theater.
Early on in the film, we watch as what looks like a meteor strikes a lighthouse. Something begins emanating from the lighthouse where the meteor lands. We learn, with Lena, that this emanation is called "The Shimmer." She is told this by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is commissioning another expedition to investigate what exactly this phenomenon really is. You see, other groups had been sent before, but Kane was the only person to ever return.
As you might expect, Lena finds herself a part of this expedition team. Now, I am not questioning her credentials - she is a leading biologist and has military training. However, I did find it to be slightly convenient that, on what is supposed to be a top-secret mission of the highest order, she simply waltzes in and joins the team. In any case, it is a minor exception in what I found to be an overall astounding achievement of a film.
Each team member - Lena, Dr. Ventress, paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and surveyor and geologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) - joins the mission with their own form of baggage. We are given visual confirmation of the pain that Lena carries with her - she had an affair with Daniel while her husband was gone. We learn about the stories of the others' along the way. At the same time, we learn that there are dark things afoot inside the shimmer, but also beautiful things.
The film is a fascinating meditation on depression and the ways humans can self-destruct. Here, I must give credit to Angelica Jade Bastién and her fantastic review for Vulture. When we go through difficult moments such as these, we come out on the other side the same person in some ways and changed in others.
I would not want to spoil the treasures that this film has to offer, but I must say that the ending left me emotionally wrecked and in awe of the power of this film. You can certainly see the influences of a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey here, as that film's ending also dealt with the way humanity changes. I must also say that there are parts of this film that are vividly frightening - not in the quick thrills that we're used to from the movies, but in a deeper sense of fright.
At all times, the film is carried forward by the writing and direction of Garland and the incredible performance from Portman. The entire cast is wonderful, but it is Portman in the lead role that does a bulk of the heavy lifting. She's perfectly cast, and she gives a stellar performance.
By the end, we're left wondering what is real and what isn't. What have we just experienced and what does it have to say? As I said before, I highly recommend experiencing this film in the theater - even multiple times if you can. It will give you food for thought and cinematic brilliance that you're sure to be considering long after the credits roll.
Note on content: The film does showcase Lena's extramarital affair in two scenes that are basically identical to one another. Lena is shown in the midst of intercourse from behind from the shoulders up. In the second scene, they discuss their affair, as both of them are married. The scenes are brief, but explicit in nature - though no nudity is shown. Most of the film's mature content is its violence, which is brutal and gory at points. Two scenes in particular - when the characters watch a video of a man cutting open another man's stomach and an attack from a wild animal - are particularly violent. There are also points in the film that are psychologically thrilling, and may be frightening to some viewers. The film also contains profanity. Annihilation has an overall sense of foreboding and fear, and it is certainly not for young audiences. However, for those of a certain age or maturity level, it is a film that showcases great acting, directorial skill and ambition and a striking sense of the places movies can take us.