When science fiction strikes just the right balance, it does something truly incredible to the human psyche. Whether it's through George Orwell's classic 1984, or even through more recent examples such as Christopher Nolan's Interstellar or Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, it's about finding a way, through total alienation, to say something extraordinarily intimate about the human condition. The supernatural, even the paranormal, are used to amplify a more humble truth about current events; technology becomes human, and alien creatures are used to understand our own collective hivemind. In many ways, science fiction is only superficially set in the future or revolves around alien races or technological revolution - if you dig deeper, it's about us. But, this is only sensed when the genre is handled with care, with a careful touch of hand, the hand of an artist. Therefore, it's a rare luxury to find yourself moved in the theatre when a robot dies, when aliens arrive, or when love finds its way out into the never-ending blackness of space.
And here we find ourselves once again having just enjoyed such a gift, a science fiction experience that no-one with even the slightest interest in this particular genre should cheat themselves out of seeing. Annihilation is its name, and it's the difficult second picture from the talented mind of Alex Garland, who impressed us four years ago with his motion picture directorial debut, Ex Machina. Now, he's back, and this time on Netflix, surprisingly, with a movie that will start streaming later this month, with specific dates varying depending on where you live.
Annihilation is, quite simply, the tale of Lena, a former marine and now a professor of molecular biology, who, to save her husband from a strange illness, ventures into a top-secret zone within the US referred to only as "The Shimmer". Here, a few years before, a meteorite fell from the sky and struck a picturesque lighthouse on the coast, and subsequently a dome-like bubble has encompassed the surrounding area, and it's expanding. Inside, everything is chaos, and no members of the investigation teams sent by the military have returned to tell the tale.
From here, it becomes particularly dangerous to further describe the events surrounding the plot, the characters and their development, or even some of the visual set pieces. This is not to cheat you, the reader, out of the more descriptive aspects of a review such as this, on the contrary, this is simply to protect you from unnecessary information that might extract a bit of enjoyment from the viewing. Like certain other movies out there, and we're sure you'll remember quite a few, Annihilation benefits from flying under the collective radar, and although there have been several trailers, it's heavily recommended that you "go in blind" as they say. The moment of surprise, the initial shock of the movie's distinct visual language, and the individual interpretation of what's depicted on screen is paramount in this particular case.
What we can say for certain here, is that with The Shimmer, Alex Garland has once again proved that he has a particular eye for cinematography, for aesthetics, and for visual presentation matched by only a few directors working today. Together with Denis Villeneuve, Garland possesses a relatively unique visual language, and where it might have peeped out from under the rug in Ex Machina, it's everpresent in Annihilation, where colour, placement, pacing, and artistic expression is in full cooperation with one another. To say it plainly, The Shimmer provides you with a sumptuous visual experience unlike anything else.
Not only that, the movie constantly undercuts the grandeur of its visuals with a relatively low-key narrative, as if it knows where and how to place exposition that never takes away from the tense mood, the overall vibe of each scene. If you're expecting very clear exposition and concrete answers to the questions the movie asks, you'll be sorely disappointed. Instead, the movie offers up a more thoughtful, borderline philosophical approach to its source material, and ultimately that makes for a more lingering presence in your mind. That's not to say that movie makers can be as vague as they want and still get the best possible results, but in the case of Annihilation, and indeed Villeneuve's Arrival, it's more about the atmosphere than about having a coherent plot structure.
In truth, it's about emotions, about the characters' reactions to the events they're exposed to within The Shimmer, and in this sense, Annihilation offers up low-key but thoughtful and believable performances by Natalie Portman, followed by Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Swedish actor Tuva Novotny. These four women bond in a slightly distanced yet utterly relatable way. Together they provide the human edge to the supernatural they discover within The Shimmer, and it's also together that they provide the depth, the double-edged nature of science fiction described at the start of this review - the familiar and the alien cooperating to shine a light on the human condition.
Annihilation is about nature as much as it's about mankind's role within it. It's about self-destruction, about genes, about the gigantic crucible of genetic material that is our blue planet, and this may sound cryptic, maybe even too much so, but if you want something more concrete, know that Garland's second outing is a near stroke of genius underlined with strong visuals and powerful performances. Netflix has secured a science fiction pearl, and they needed it, so ultimately you can now erase the experience of watching The Cloverfield Paradox with this. The difference in quality is astounding.