Three years post Ex Machina, Alex Garland treats us to yet another Black Mirror-esque blend of technological horror and sci-fi that ranks as one of the more intelligent science fiction films of the last few years. I'll cut to the chase and make clear it doesn't equal the heights of Garland's first official directorial outing, but is still a grand feat for the outstanding screenwriting veteran. It may not have the brains of Ex Machina and often gets hung up on being ambiguous rather than contemplative, but it's serves a purpose of playing with your head as much as it messes with our lead characters, resulting in some of the most horrifying imagery to come out of something that wasn't torture porn.
Natalie Portman leads the film as broken biologist Lena who wakes up in an unknown facility, joining three other female scientists and psychologist Dr. Ventress, the quintet quickly discovers the source of an area called The Shimmer, to a lighthouse from which they believe this rapidly-evolving disturbance first emanated. Annihilation is about 5 amazingly intelligent women, two of which are women of colour, one of which is gay, and though the diversity is not the forefront of the film, it serves its purpose among heavily marketed projects such as Ghostbusters 2016 and Black Panther that also play their role for a different demographic, and I'm surprised more people aren't talking about this angle. Also, Oscar Isaac is there.
Annihilation is not made for the masses, that was beyond clear after Paramount only gave it a small theatrical run in the US, followed shortly by a Netflix dump (and after Paradox and Mute, it's fate isn't looking too good so far). It's no fault of the movie that the lack of promotional material was seen as a run-of-the-mill monster movie to those un-familiar of Garland's previous work. Whilst there are physical forms of evil the scientists must face on their path through The Shimmer, the film sees itself as far above short term suspense that other pictures would provide, drip feeding information in a similar form to Kubrick and never really painting the full picture for the viewer.
Garland's directing is a force to be reckoned with, and after according to Karl Urban he also directed Dredd after all, it's obvious he is an enigma of taking untouchable source material and finding genius paths into making it work. Beyond the cinematography and production design, there is a vinyl ready score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (previously used in Ex Machina) that begins with a delicate acoustic guitar before descending into a maddening wave of droning synth and unearthly noises as Lena delves further into the insanity of the The Shimmer.
I don't blame Paramount for pulling this from theatres, drawing a comparison from mother! which partnered the same slow tension escalation with a bat-shit insane ending, these don't make money anymore. But damn, how I would've loved too seen this on the big screen, a TV size screen with sub-par speakers will never do Annihilation justice. Garland has taken what his contemporaries would have portrayed as one dimensional horror sci-fi, but like The Shimmer, the meaning of this film will expand and grow over time.