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Film Review: Annihilation

23 May 18 words: Fabrice Gagos

Alex Garland directs and Natalie Portman stars in the adaptation of Jeff VandeMeer's best-selling Southern Reach Trilogy

Director: Alex Garland

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Oscar Isaac

Running time: 115 mins

Having already written about Netflix offering opportunities for independent and original movies to be released, I'm pleased to see that Annihilation is another such offering, albeit quite different. Indeed, Alex Garland's (Ex-Machina) second movie has been released in theatres across the US, Canada and China. However, following poor test screenings results, the film has been found "too intellectual" and "too complicated" by Paramount for international viewers. The studio, which has become somewhat turned off after several flops during the last years, then chose to sell the film's international rights to Netflix. It's official: we are too dumb for Paramount. 

But, yet again, thanks to Netflix we've been allowed to see the film anyway. So is it so complicated for us simple minded folk? Or is it just that American test screening audiences should stop being trusted with deciding the fate of a film?  

Annihilation, freely based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, follows a group of five scientists lead by Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as they journey into the "shimmer", an ever enlarging glowing electromagnetic field from outer space which seems to swallow everything we send into it. Lena (Natalie Portman) a biologist and former US army soldier, has joined them at the last minute to discover what happened to his husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), the only survivor of the last military expedition, who seems a bit...different. 

Once into the shimmer things start to get wobbly; the team forget chunks of time, technology fails and one of the scientists is attacked by a genetically mutated alligator. Fortunately, the team of scientists have weapons, because, well, Americans tend to give weapons to everybody. Why should we be surprised? 

Some will find it beautiful, others will be afraid, but probably most will reject it

In those terms the film may seems a bit silly. But watching Annihilation is like dreaming: things seem to happen without proper logic, mostly in the shimmer, but for some reason, we never question it. This dreamlike atmosphere is strengthened by the colourful art direction and most of all, the beautiful electro-acoustic score composed by Ben Salisbury and Portishead's Geoff Barrow. If the film begins as a classic Sci-Fi action story, the deeper the team go into the shimmer the more it shifts into a psychological horror thriller making it reminiscent of the original Alien movie.  

But that's not its only and biggest mutation: the last half hour is in total rupture with the rest of the film, including an eleven-minute psychedelic scene devoid of any dialogue (I'm pretty sure I've got 2001: A Space Odyssey fan's attention now, don't I?). This everlasting change of tone probably explains why people got confused during the test screenings. It is however smooth and consistent and reflects the progression in the Shimmer and the shift in reality that occurs. It's challenging to visually represent the indescribable, but Annihilation definitely makes a brilliant attempt.  

Like an H.P. Lovecraft's story (particularly The Colour Out of Space), Annihilation creates this sense of unease, the same we face when encountering the unknown. Some will find it beautiful, others will be afraid, but probably most will reject it. But it is nonetheless refreshing to see a film portraying aliens neither similar to us nor driven by the same instincts.  

Whilst larger studios may aim only to give people films that provide instant gratification (and thus guarantee profitability), Annihilation is not this kind of movie. It probably needs more than one viewing to give you everything it has to give but if you like "too intellectual" and "too complicated" bold movies, then you should enjoy it.  

Did you know? Oscar Isaac filmed this movie and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) on adjacent studio lots. He had the same trailer for both films and would often film scenes for both movies on the same day.

Annihilation is available to view of Netflix UK now



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