Arts in Review

Annihilation is both bizarre and beautiful

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Annihilation is a sci-fi horror film by writer-director Alex Garland (also known for Ex Machina) that is based on the book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, the first part of his Southern Reach Trilogy.

The movie follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a biology professor whose life takes an unexpected turn into the bizarre when her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), suddenly returns from a secret military mission after being missing for almost a year, presumably KIA. Kane, with no memory of what happened, is extremely ill, and the two are taken into government custody where Lena learns he was part of a group sent into a mysterious, aberrant area of coastland referred to as “Area X” or “the shimmer,” in reference to the strange iridescence that encompasses it. Craving answers and hoping to find some way to save her husband, Lena embarks on an expedition alongside four other women of science, plunging into the unknown.

This adaptation deviates a great deal from the source material, and it’s clear that Garland’s writing skills aren’t quite up to par with those of VanderMeer, with several of the changes made just leading to more questions and/or confusion. For example, in the cinematic version, no one has ever entered Area X (not even a few feet past the barrier) and come back alive before Kane, whereas in the book, this is not the case. Though it might increase the sense of foreboding for the viewer going in, without any further explanation ever given, it seems to hurt the plot more than it helps enhance anything.

The film does manage to capture the surreal, dark atmosphere of the story, however, and the heaviness of a work which deeply explores themes such as severe depression and introspection. The acting was satisfactory overall, with stirring performances given by the lead actresses playing the group of intelligent but broken individuals, each dealing with their own personal torments and existential crises. Natalie Portman brings her usual acting prowess to the leading role, and the talented Tessa Thompson was wonderful as the shy, introverted physicist, Josie, but most memorable for me was probably Jennifer Jason Leigh, who did an excellent job in her portrayal of the abrasive psychologist and team leader, Dr. Ventress.

The unique story is very intriguing, able to keep the viewer’s curiosity peaked throughout, always eager to discover new pieces to the puzzle. The suspense and horror elements are executed quite effectively, although at times do suffer from some typical genre cliches, such as large, noisy beasts being able to instantly become ninja silent and disappear.

All else aside, even those who might not be fans overall would still have to give credit to just how visually stunning it is: beautiful usage of brilliant colour and vivid imagery brings the spectacular sci-fi world and all of its imaginative fauna and flora to life, immersing you in it.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, after not performing overly well in its summer test screening, Paramount Pictures decided that the film may be “too intellectual” and complicated, and not likely to make as much money as they hoped, so they pressured Garland to make alterations (including changing the entire original ending) they felt would be more appealing to mainstream audiences. Garland did not want to compromise his artistic vision to that extent, and backed by producer Scott Rudin, refused. Paramount subsequently sold the international release rights to Netflix, and because of this, the movie will only be shown in theatres in Canada, the U.S., and China (having opened on Feb. 23), with others getting a straight-to-Netflix release later this month.

This is really a shame, not only seeing studios less and less willing to take chances on anything they don’t think will make as much bank as the next Marvel flick, but also because Annihilation is such a gorgeous cinematic piece that was made to be seen on the big screen, as specifically mentioned by Garland, whose native Britain is among the many countries who won’t have the option of watching the film in theatres. Also, being based off the first book of a trilogy, there is great potential for sequels which may never come to realization if not enough funds or interest is generated.

If you’re a fan of the genre, I would recommend seeing Annihilation before its unfortunately limited theatre run is over, as it deserves to be viewed in all of its intended theatrical glory. If not, still consider checking it out on Netflix sometime if you’re ever looking for an original, captivating sci-fi/fantasy thriller. And if you find it to your liking, then I would definitely also suggest checking out the Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance.

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