Browse all reviews by letter     A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 0 - 9

USA/UK 2018
Directed by
Alex Garland
115 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


Alex Garland’s film, his follow-up to the much admired Ex Machina (2015) begins with a fiery ball hitting a neglected lighthouse before cutting to an unidentified man in a Hazmat suit interviewing an unidentified woman (Natalie Portman) about an unspecified mission from which she has just returned. The narrative then alternates between the present and flashbacks to explain what is going on.

The woman is Lena, a former soldier, now an academic at John Hopkins University. She is mourning the death of her husband. Kane (Oscar Isaacs, who had starred in Ex Machina), also a soldier, who she believes has been killed in action. Then Kane mysteriously reappears but with no memory of what he has been doing in the past twelve months. He is however seriously unwell. We then cut to a research facility near the light house which is now surrounded by a wall of billowing iridescent cloud-like shapes and which has been named The Shimmer. 

Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) tells Lena that she and her colleagues have been investigating The Shimmer for three years now but nothing that has gone into it has ever come out. In the hope of helping her husband Lena joins Ventress and three other women (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and Cass (Tuva Novotny) on a fact-finding mission through The Shimmer to the lighthouse.

Although Annihilation is somewhat reminiscent of Denis Villeneuve’s masterful Arrival  (2016) in which the military faced an unknown life form and called upon a woman (Amy Adams’ linguist ) to communicate with it, Garland, liberally adapting a novel by Jeff Vandermeer, takes a more traditional approach to plot, arming his five women (slightly ridiculously) with automatic weapons and having them picked off (bar, for obvious reasons, Lena) one by one in grisly ways

Thanks to cinematographer Rob Hardy, composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (all three Ex Machina vets) and a large sound and visual effects department, Garland creates a creepily effective “other-worldly’ setting for his film (it looks like it was shot in Louisiana’s Everglades) with its tone of fearful apprehension. If mostly this is in the ambit of a solidly-realized sci-fi piece the longish final act gives it extra oomph both visually and conceptually, an extra-special achievement as, too often, intriguing films squander their wealth with a conventionally reassuring last act, whereas here it is left at least somewhat open-ended. (After test screenings Paramount wanted to make changes to the ending but producer Scott Rudin supported Garland and thankfully the studio backed down).

In the lead Portman gives a strong performance whilst Jennifer Jason Leigh albeit in a smaller part is also compelling. The remaining women are, however, largely cyphers and the fact that they are all tertiary educated appears to be of no particular relevance, leaving one to wonder what was the point of this considerable gender overhaul of the genre template.

Also there are a couple of potent recurring ideas, one being “the rhythm of the dividing pair” as the basis for hte evolution of all living things, the other The Shimmer as a refracting agent  that is catalysing rapid, random DNA mutations.  You may need to consult Jeff Vandermeer’s novel to find out more about these matters as they are dealt only schematically by Garland.  Still, idea rich and skilfully realized Annihilation is a film that will reward your attention, whether sci-fi buff or not.

FYI:  You might like to seek out Bird Box, released the same year, which has much in common with Garland’s film.





Want something different?

random vintage best worst