Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Review #1,321: 'Annihilation' (2018)

The debate surrounding Netflix's validity as a cinematic platform was in full swing last year, with Cannes Film Festival announcing that the streaming service will no longer be able to enter their original movies into competition, following a negative reaction by audiences who jeered and booed whenever their logo flashed on screen. Should only movies released in cinemas be classified as 'true cinema', or is this just blatant, ignorant snobbery? Great directors such as Steven Spielberg, Ingmar Bergman and Rainer Werner Fassbinder have all produced fantastic work for the small screen, so should films be judged on their quality alone, regardless of how they were released to the general audience?

With The Cloverfield Paradox, Netflix have proven they can offer an alternative to a production company sweating on the success on something they have poured millions of dollars into. The fact that it was a steaming pile of hot mess aside, Cloverfield drew far more viewers than it would have ever dreamed of if released on the big screen. With Annihilation, director Alex Garland's first film since 2014's fantastic Ex Machina, Netflix were used a compromise when Paramount weren't happy with the film's ending, which they were concerned would be 'too weird' for a mainstream audience. Garland stuck to his guns, and Annihilation is now available to us as the director intended. Despite the mass of crap they produce on a monthly basis, the billion-dollar company clearly love cinema, supporting artists without being too concerned about whether or not it will make money, as the subscriptions will still be paid regardless.

The strongest argument is that when the final product is as thrilling, engaging and original as Annihilation, who the hell cares if it was projected onto a cinema screen or not? (It did receive a limited release elsewhere, but not here in the UK) Garland's second movie backs up the idea that the 28 Days Later and Sunshine scribe is one of the most important voices in science-fiction at the moment. Loosely based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation sends a group of women into an scientific anomaly known as 'The Shimmer', without making a big deal of the absence of a male lead one would expect from such a genre piece. Our protagonist is Lena, played by Natalie Portman, a cellular biology professor grieving over the year-long disappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). Believed to be long-dead, Kane suddenly reappears one night, unable to recall where he has been or how he made it home. After he starts to cough up blood, they are both abducted on the way to the hospital at gun-point by a special government unit and taken to a secret facility called Area X.

It's here that Lena learns of The Shimmer, a mysterious oily dome covering much of the southern coast and constantly expanding. Many have made their way into the otherworldly place, but none, save Kane, have made it back out. Communication cuts out as soon as anyone enters, so the one overseeing expeditions, psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is just as clueless as anyone else. She plans to join the team recruited for the next expedition, which consists of physicist Josie Radeck (Tessa Thompson), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), and anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). Keen to uncover the truth about Kane's time spent within the Shimmer and how he made it out alive, Lena persuades Ventress to allow her to join the group, using her military background and scientific expertise to plead her case. Things quickly turn weird as they pass through the seemingly inexplicable border, as the unit wake up to find they have been in there for three days and cannot remember a thing. As they venture further into the Shimmer and towards a lighthouse believed to be sheltering the source of its power, they witness the law of physics increasingly defied and reshaped.

Annihilation had the same effect on me as 2016's Arrival. It feels important to a stagnating genre, offering both riveting set-pieces and exploring areas of science that will have you constantly engaged in order to have any hope of understanding the story's revelations. As plants start to interbreed, strange animals emerge as terrifying amalgamations, and time feels like it has no place or purpose, the film offers convincing explanations. You may not work them out until days later - and Annihilation will likely linger for a long time afterwards - but it will all make sense, even if the climax offers one of the strangest, most beautiful, and undeniably creepiest scenes in recent memory. But this isn't just for science boffins. A found-footage moment that brought back terrifying memories of Event Horizon and an encounter with what can only be described as half bear/half wolf with a scream to give you nightmares only heighten the growing sense of unease as the movie progresses. Garland has the courage to run with his ideas and glory in the ambiguity of it all, and he can only be commended for refusing to alter his vision for any gutless studio heads. Cannes should really reconsider.

Directed by: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong
Country: UK/USA

Rating: *****

Tom Gillespie

Annihilation (2018) on IMDb

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