Categorized | TV & Movies

Monica Valentinelli

Annihilation Movie Review

Posted on April 6, 2018 by Monica Valentinelli

Annihilation (2018)

Annihilation (2018) is a dark science fantasy thriller written and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina). Unlike Ex Machina (2014), Garland adapted the work from the first novel of acclaimed author Jeff VanderMeer‘s Southern Reach trilogy.

The night before we went to see Annihilation, I had watched The Ritual (2017). Like The Witch (2015) and so many other films in the genre, The Ritual was also a movie about a creepy forest, strange disappearances, and the occult. The Ritual had some nice twists, but in my mind that film is solid but not groundbreaking. Walking into the theater that next night, I worried Annihilation would be yet another “team walks into a forest and bad things happen” film like the movies I had just watched. Though I have read several books and anthologies by VanderMeer before (and hoped for the twist he is so very good at divining), I half-expected this film to be another surreal stroll through the woods — and I couldn’t have been more wrong.

There are few movies that I’ve had to talk about for hours after watching them. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) forced me to second guess the use of a watch. Cube (1997) was so well done, it gave me new insight into how the classic haunted house/dungeon crawl could be reinvented for the modern age. The Arrival (2016) offered me a new, tangible way to find hope in a story, while remaining true to some genre conventions. Annihilation is now added to that list of my all-time favorites, and it is a film that demands multiple viewings.

***SPOILERS BELOW******SPOILERS BELOW******SPOILERS BELOW******SPOILERS BELOW******

Why? What was so compelling about yet another jaunt into the woods? One of the things to remember about this genre trope, is that it will remain one of the cornerstones in thrillers because the woods acts as a great backdrop for the unknown. Omnipresent in fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel as well, the dark and unknowable forest often holds dark and dangerous secrets. A lone witch or herbalist. Cults of devil-worshippers. A cryptid or lost humanoid species. While the unknown is often explored in a story of survival or tragedy, there’s often a moral to the tale as well. Often, the message is: “Don’t get lost.” Or, alternatively, “Nature always wins.” How well that message comes across depends on any number of factors, ranging from our emotional connection to the characters, to our ability to be surprised.

Annihilation succeeds because it has all three requirements for a great thriller: we care about the characters, we find ourselves in a strange and unknowable environment, and we are able to be very, very surprised. The premise for the film begins with a twist. Lena (Natalie Portman) and her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaacs), are the only two survivors following an incident. Kane, however, is unconscious and not doing well. We know something went terribly wrong — but we’re not sure what happened or even where. Now, as the audience, we’re interested. We have to figure out who or what the monster is in order for us to be satisfied.

To lead us on our journey into Area X, a forest just beyond a mysterious phenomenon known as “The Shimmer”, we aren’t given all that we need to know upfront. Instead, we get to know Lena and her husband Kane through flashbacks. We’re drawn steadily and firmly into Lena’s world. We feel the love between the two. We feel the pain of loss when Kane leaves, and then again when he disappears while on assignment. The premise for the film shifts, then, and broadens to show this terrifying force is bigger than Lena and Kane. Teams of well-trained soldiers had yet to return beyond the shimmery veil of light separating the unknown (forest) with the rest of the known world. So, Lena, a capable biologist in her own right, becomes part of an expert team led by a psychologist named Ventress. The team, which includes anthropologist Cass Sheppard, paramedic Anya Thorensen, and physicist Josie Radeck, intentionally wanders into the woods through the shimmer to find out what in Einstein’s name is going on.

Once inside, the effects of the shimmer slowly take hold and are revealed at a thriller’s pace. In the back of our minds, we knew up front that this capable and unique team of scientists will eventually crumble, but we don’t know when or how. When combined with Lena’s quest to find her husband, new questions are added and the mystery intensifies. What is the shimmer? What is its source? What happened to the previous team? To the current one? What did happen to them? And, what will happen to Lena?

The film culminates at the team’s destination: the Lighthouse. While all threads lead to this ill-fated place, new questions flower in the wake of every character-and-setting reveal, accelerating to a terrifying encounter with Lena’s indescribable doppelganger. In this way, despite the fact we’ve known from the beginning this is a movie that may not end well, we remain in a constant state of wonder and anxiety and curiosity right up to the cerebral twist of an ending.

Performed brilliantly by an all-star cast with a spot on soundtrack, if you enjoy movies that take you by surprise, creative worldbuilding, and nuanced characters I would not miss Annihilation.

The Annihilation trailer is available on YouTube! here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89OP78l9oF0. You might be able to catch Annihilation in the theaters, before renting or buying it. If books are your jam, check out Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, or the Annihilation movie novelization.

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