edit: After reading some more analysis and feeling like a dolt for missing so much relevant subtext, I decided to revise my review score from 4 to 5.
One of Netflix’s earlier 2018 offerings, Annihilation has rich pedigree in front of and behind the camera. Directed and adapted by Alex Garland, this disquieting horror sci-fi has assembled the likes of Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, and even Benedict Wong. Based on the best-selling book by Jeff VanderMeer, the story follows a group of five scientists who are dispatched to a area of mysterious origin that has claimed anyone and anything that has tried to investigate it. All previous groups were male.
It’s a plot driven by an ominous mystery with inexplicable, harrowing exploration. Many scenes take you by surprise, but the story never feels like it’s just wandering.
The book was written in first-person format, and there are several mentions of distorted reality, indeterminate orientation, and days of missing memory. One example is a structure that the group comes across early in the book: Portman’s character admits in her narrative that it heads downward, like a tunnel but, much to the irritation of the others, she repeatedly refers to it as a ‘tower’. That, along with the fact that no character is named in the novel (instead going by their job e.g ‘the psychologist’), were one of a few things that couldn’t feasibly be translated from the source material.
While there is fine acting all around, this is largely Portman’s film, and she carries it with the maturity I’ve been dying to see since her early days. Her character is the storyteller, and her screen presence, along with Garland’s direction, make you unable to take your eyes off the screen. Credit must also go to the mesmerising VFX and SFX, as well as the impressive prosthetics and borderline sculptures that make up some of the film’s horrors (and beauty).
Its steady pace and quiet themes of loneliness, grief and self-destruction might not be for everyone, but if you come for the horror and stay for the existentialism, you’ll be in for a thoroughly rewarding watch.