It’s been an interesting couple of weeks making my way through the Netflix original science fiction slate. The Cloverfield Paradox is more interesting as a franchise component than as a (admittedly fun), movie, I’ve got work out this week that talks about Moon and Mute and Bright was also a movie I saw.
Annihilation is both the highest profile film Netflix have got and also far and away the strangest. Based in the loosest sense on the Jeff VanderMeer novel it follows a team of female scientists on their journey into Area X. Area X is an area on the coast of the US that is…different. Everything in there is changing including both space and time, the area is constantly expanding and every living and automated expedition sent in has never returned.
Lena (Natalie Portman), is a biologist and former soldier with a very good reason to want to enter Area X. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a psychologist whose reasons are darker still. Josie (The always excellent Tessa Thompson) is an open minded, curious scientist while Anya (Gina Rodriguez, again excellent) is a cheerful paramedic who is not equipped for what’s ahead. Along with geologist Cass Shepard (Tuva Novtony who’s great here) they are sent into Area X. And, unlike every previous team bar one, they discover the truth…
Alex Garland’s first movie as director, Ex Machina, was rightly praised for its ambition and design but scratch the surface and it’s got a mess of problems. One of the most prominent is that Garland, as a scriptwriter, is very good at cold, insectile rage and not terribly interested in any other emotion.
That’s what scuppers the first act here, including a moment of narrative necessity so ludicrous he almost pops up on screen and goes ‘I know, just run with it’. It’s cold and clean and clinical and dull, not to mention hurtling towards the pomposity that Ex Machina’s weakest moments have by the ton.
And then they enter Area X and everything changes. The weirdly mannered turn by Jennifer Jason Leigh snaps into focus, the time dilation and physical changes have some truly startling effects on the team and the movie and the atmosphere only ever gets more unsettling. There’s a stunningly good action set piece involving nothing more than people tied to a chair and something that isn’t. There’s a profoundly strange and deeply unsettling closing scene that is one part interpretative dance one part first contact. There’s a moment with Josie which is the purest expression of scientific inquiry, wonder and horror I’ve seen this century. Inside Area X, the movie shines with a light as unearthly as everything the team encounters and it feels alien and disturbing long before the occasional gore kicks in.
This all builds to that closing scene and the actual close of the movie which manages to bookend the film with real elegance and emotional impact. This is Garland learning, and learning massively, from his first time in the big chair and from past choices as a writer.The characters all feel real, the motivations shift and there’s a definite sense of them reaching too far, knowing it and not liking what they find.
Annihilation is a far from easy movie. The gradient in that first act is brutal, the gore is occasional but unflinching and at least one performance may be a deal breaker for you. But if you can deal with that, then this is absolutely worth your time. Unsettling, oddly beautiful and unlike anything else I’ve seen this year.
(This piece originally appeared in my newsletter, The Full Lid. Check out the archive over here, and subscribe for a weekly dose of pop culture, enthusiasm and my work)