Annihilation (USA 2018)
Alex Garland’s strange misanthropy bleeds through his scripts and creates work that unnerves me like no other filmmaker before or since. Even in the strange filmography of Stanley Kubrick, littered with semiotic messaging that could be nightmarish, there was still a strain on comedy in almost all his work. Not so with Garland, whose second directorial effort, Annihilation, filled me with dread for the better part of two hours.
Garland’s name is still not quite out there, but it’s going to be. He’s primarily worked as a writer but more recently moved into directing. 2014’s Ex Machina, his debut, was one of that year’s best. More personally, he wrote the script for 28 Days Later and kicked off what is turning into two decades of movies and TV shows with zombies that can run (yes, they’re infected, not zombines, but the point stands). 28 Days Later is, for whatever reason, the movie that scares me the most. It tops all the slasher films, The Shining, The Exorcist, Rosemar’s Baby, multiple episodes of The Twilight Zone, etc, in inducing long sleepless nights due to the nightmares it gave me. Danny Boyle directed, and he made what was for me an instant masterpiece.
So, just taking the three scripts in question - 28 Days Later, Annihilation and Ex-Machina, and add his novel The Beach which was adapated to the screen in a highly underrated movie starring Leonardo Dicaprio - and we have four deeply troubling, highly entertaining stories about the lesser angels of our nature and our penchant for selfishness and self-destruciton.
Annihilation is about something from outer space entering the Earth’s atmosphere and hitting a lighthouse in Florida, creating an ever-growing shimmer into which many men have been sent and only one has returned.
Natalie Portman is a biologist teaching at Johns Hopkins but in an earlier life was in the army, two character traits that will come in handy when, in a series of increasingly strange occurrences, she joins an all-female expedition into the shimmer.
A kind of biologic rapid evoltuion/mutation is occurring within the shimmer, and the visuals are srtunning to the point of being everything James Cameraon tried and failed to do in Avatar. If ever there was a drug movie, this would be a drug movie. It is also, as noted, deeply unsettling. Nothing is quite right, and the women immediately lose time and orientation once entering the shimmer. They are attacked, they find clues of the men who came before them, they find the original government facility built to study the shimmer before it was overcome by it, then a village, and at the end of the road, the lighthouse.
There are a thousand stories about a group of people going on a dangerous journey into the unknown - the only two I kept returning to, no doubt because they were fresh in my memory having seen both in the last month, were Apocalypse Now and Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The military aspect and the group’s method of travel brought up the former, and the brooding, impossibly dreadful mood of the journey and its surroundings the latter.
Garland swings for the fences, and although he comes up a bit short, I love what he was trying to do in the film’s final 15 minutes, which appear to have lost most reviewers in much the same sense the bedroomn/starchild sequence at the end of 2001: A Space Oddessey made people think Kubrick had lost his mind.
Natalie Portman is excellent as the lead, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s career resurrection continues pace with another strong performance. Leigh’s ability to talk in something slightly lower than vocal fry may not be acting, but it is nonetheless effectrive, and I find her more attractive now than I did when she was a teenager in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. All the performances are effective, and Garland’s taste in mood music is nearly perfect, save for one really out-of-place sequence in the film’s third or fourth scene where an entire pop love song plays - it was a strange choice.
If you liked Ex Machina, you’ll like Annihilation.