Natalie Portman journeys into familiar territory in Annihilation

Natalie Portman journeys into familiar territory in Annihilation

Alex Garland's Annihilation has been met with some skepticism pre-release, thanks to concerns about the movie whitewashing the racially diverse cast of the source material and Paramount selling all worldwide rights to the movie to Netflix. It has an incredibly compelling mystery at its heart, it's filled with nuanced performances by unbelievable actors, and it looks unbelievably fantastic. He's more concerned about messing with your head; smashing brawny existential themes and human frailty into tightly coiled science fiction scenarios. There's so much art that's being lost by not giving opportunities to women and people of color.

Honestly, though, this premise is worth the price of admission.

I definitely do. I think that the answers to all the questions that people are likely to ask, they are not always stated but they are inferred, and they all exist within the film. Where did this place come from? Whereas the book comes off as more of a portrait of an ecology in psychedelic decline, Garland's film is about a personality undergoing the same kind of breakdown. Alex Garland's follow-up to 2014's masterful sci-fi opus Ex Machina is an exercise in tension and cerebral gymnastics.

Determined to find out what happened to her husband in that deadly zone, Lena joins an all-female expedition, which is led by Jennifer Jason Leigh's Dr. Ventress and includes Gina Rodriguez' Anya, Tessa Thompson's Josie and Tuva Novotny's Cass. She's stunned when her husband (Oscar Isaac) shows up in their home, after being missing in action for a year. It doesn't take long for Lena, who Portman gives some genuine emotional weight in a movie that mostly just asks its characters to react to the freakish, to realize something is wrong with Kane.

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Isaac and Garland spoke with SYFY WIRE about seeing Kane before and after his visit beyond the Shimmer (the border between the "normal" world and Area X), the different versions of the character, using practical effects as much as possible and more. With its creatures and plant life, and its ethereal, smoky, rainbow-covered world photographed by cinematographer Rob Hardy, the Shimmer is cinematic world-building at its finest. Annihilation is an ambitious next step for Garland, who launched his career with the screenplay for 28 Days Later, but his track record makes him a good match for Vandermeer's foggy and verdant bio-horror. And I thought, 'I'm not exactly sure how to adapt this, but I've got an idea.' And I just went with it. Hey, you're not paranoid if someone really is out to get you. One heel-turns for a reel; another has to say the title out loud, with much build-up and a dramatic flourish. That movie was incredible. But that's not the case; Annihilation ends with a few choice moments that make it clear it's had a message all along. At the same time, studio horror films starring Oscar winners are rarely this weird.

Annihilation is a visceral cinematic experience that, while plagued with structural problems, delivers plenty of thrills and eye-popping spectacle. According to her, it would be detrimental for a child to see his mother die at a very young age, even if it's on-screen.

Even Garland seems bored with this introductory section; interspersing an interrogation of Lena after she emerges seemingly unscathed from the Shimmer. And also to the performers, who get more interesting the longer their characters' minds are exposed to the warped reality of Area X. Leigh, Thompson, and Rodriguez are given very specific, very surface traits to play with and each actor does a more than admirable job with them. They're going to enter "The Shimmer", go to the lighthouse, collect data and return (though that seems unlikely, based on the track record).

It's hugely refreshing, and remarkably uncommon, to watch a genre film that revolves around intelligent characters reacting intelligently to fantastical events. (Although, the squeamish should be warned those spectacles range from mildly disturbing to gory and disgusting to absolutely terrifying.) The annihilation of the film's title is the self-directed kind, and it's working on a molecular level, even when the Hollywood narrative trappings of the film let it down.

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