Natalie Portman plays a biologist in Alex Garland’s Annihilation.
Natalie Portman plays a biologist in Alex Garland’s Annihilation.

Annihilation movie review: Natalie Portman’s film is the most visionary cinematic experience of the year so far

Annihilation review: Alex Garland, director of Ex Machina and writer of 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and Sunshine, is at his visionary best in Netflix’s Annihilation, starring Natalie Portman.
Hindustan Times | By Rohan Naahar
UPDATED ON MAR 16, 2018 08:52 AM IST

Director - Alex Garland
Cast - Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac
Rating - 4.5/5

Lens flares are mistakes. They’re freak accidents that have, in recent years, been abused with an almost murderous carelessness. You’ve seen them in virtually every science-fiction film in the last two decades. But for decades, cinematographers would go to great lengths to avoid flares. It all changed sometime around the ‘70s, when an era of young directors — part of the New Hollywood Movement — decided that flares sort of fell in line with their unglamorous aesthetic; and not like they could afford to fix them anyway.

Soon, flares were popularised as a deliberate stylistic choice by Steven Spielberg, and in the years that followed, by his many admirers, most famously directors like Michael Bay and JJ Abrams.

More recently, lens flares have become almost omnipresent in sci-fi movies, to the point that there are even apps available for your phone using which you can create alien invasions in your living rooms. You see flares everywhere from the latest Taylor Swift video to the sleekest new Apple ad.

Lens flares have textual import in Annihilation. (Netflix)
Lens flares have textual import in Annihilation. (Netflix)

There is, however, one key point that must be made. In each of these cases — from the inadvertent hexagons that appear in Easy Rider to the shards of blue in Super 8 — the flares themselves are little more than superficial embellishments, made perhaps to evoke nostalgia, or — and this is more likely — just to appear cool.

But in Alex Garland’s Kubrickian new film, Annihilation, which was made available worldwide on Netflix (more on this later), the filmmaker’s (over)use of flares has real, textual relevance. You see, flares happen when light hits the lens and essentially refracts. Annihilation deals with complex, challenging themes such as the imperfection of nature and the mistakes human beings are so prone to make. It is also, quite literally, about a strange force known as ‘The Shimmer’ that causes the ‘refraction of DNA’. So when glorious shards of anamorphic lens flares are smeared across the screen — which happens very, very often — it’s more than just empty style, it’s visual storytelling.

Natalie Portman is part of a team that appears to have no reason to live. (Netflix)
Natalie Portman is part of a team that appears to have no reason to live. (Netflix)

In the film, a team of four scientists is sent into an area known only as Area X, which is where the Shimmer exists. Three years ago, a mysterious event, speculated to be anything from an alien invasion to an act of God, caused all forms of life around a marshy stretch of land along the sea to mutate - to grow, to evolve, to change. Several expeditions were conducted to investigate Area X, but no one lived to tell the tale. No findings were reported. No questions were answered. And then, one day, a solitary expedition member returns home, visibly blank as to what happened during his time inside Area X. No sooner has he sat down, he falls violently ill, prompting his wife, Lena (played by Natalie Portman) to agree to enter Area X and get to the bottom of the mystery, and to find a way to stop it from expanding.

Annihilation is imaginatively shot by Alex Garland’s Ex Machina cinematographer, Rob Hardy. (Netflix)
Annihilation is imaginatively shot by Alex Garland’s Ex Machina cinematographer, Rob Hardy. (Netflix)

Annihilation forcefully reminded me of Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 classic, Arrival, a film with which it shares many thematic similarities in addition to a strong female protagonist. But instead of Amy Adams as a linguist, Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist who is paired with four other women and sent into Area X to investigate the strange goings-on inside its perimeter.

It also reminded me of Sunshine, a 2007 film Garland wrote for Danny Boyle, which has to be the best example of his tendency to — as the AV Club’s AA Dowd hilariously puts it — let his lizard brain take over and drastically alter the plot in the third act. Sunshine turns into a slasher movie for its final half hour, after being a meditative sci-fi film thus far. Similarly, 28 Days Later (also directed by Boyle) goes from being an existential zombie thriller to a surreal rape drama.

While Annihilation’s third act transition — yes, there is one — hardly feels as drastic as the other times Garland has done it, it’s quite nutty in its own right. But so are the changes he has made to Jeff VanderMeer’s source novel, which, I must confess, I am not particularly a fan of.

It’s rather dry, and extremely bare in its tone and descriptions, which makes it a difficult book to latch on to emotionally. Lena, in the movie, as portrayed by Natalie Portman, is a much more well-rounded character — she even has a name, a common courtesy that was not afforded to her in the book. Her motivations are clear and her pain is palpable. Garland also makes the excellent decision to ditch the novel’s non-linear structure in favour of more traditional, and more accessible one.

By changing VanderMeer’s novel significantly, Garland not only alters Lena’s motivations but also several central themes. What was once a Lovecraftian story about grief, and coming to terms with loss, turns into a movie about guilt and the self-destructive tendencies of humanity.

The lighthouse takes a different meaning in the film adaptation of Annihilation. (Netflix)
The lighthouse takes a different meaning in the film adaptation of Annihilation. (Netflix)

I can only imagine what it would have felt like to watch it on the big screen, but — and this is slightly bittersweet — only two countries in the world will get to see it ‘as it was intended’. You see, Annihilation was, like The Cloverfield Paradox before it, sold to Netflix seemingly in a last ditch effort by Paramount Pictures to salvage what they clearly saw as a lost cause. They were both right and wrong. It’s not the quality that they doubted, but its commercial viability. That’s not something I’d normally talk about, but since Garland has been vocal about his disapproval about his movie being relegated to Netflix, it’s worth mentioning.

Especially after you experience the sensory overload of his vision. It’s quite startling. When Lena enters the phallic lighthouse within which there rests a cavernous womb, surrounded by a dazzling display of light and sound, I could not help but sympathise with Garland. It’s such a carefully constructed film, both physically and emotionally; it’s a raw and ambitious science-fiction story that warrants several repeat viewings, only to discover new ideas. A great, big IMAX screen would only have helped elevate what is already a stunning film to greater heights.

Watch the Annihilation trailer here

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar

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