Milo Garner reviews the highly anticipated scifi released on Netflix earlier this month.
Alex Garland’s sophomore picture, the grandly-titled Annihilation, seems to promise high-concept sci-fi. This is a genre returning to the fold after a brief absence: there’s been the excellent Arrival, the decent Blade Runner, and the allegedly abhorrent Mute – a whole spectrum of filmmaking. Following his strong debut in Ex Machina, it seemed like Annihilation would push the boat out further than any of the others – even reaching the level of capital A Art, in the mould of Kubrick or Tarkovsky. As it happens, Annihilation is less art than artifice. But that’s not all bad.
The premise itself is intriguing: after an asteroid strike, a former national park has become home to ‘The Shimmer’, a seemingly supernatural force that blocks all vision and communication in or out. From the outside it appears to be a wall of emulsion, and all to pass through have disappeared, never to be heard from again. That is until Lena, an ex-military scientist, is visited by her husband, thought dead. His name is Kane (maybe owing more to Alien than the Bible), and he’s been MIA for a year, secretly sent beyond The Shimmer. His memory seems fried and it soon becomes apparent he is deathly sick. He’s rushed to a doctor before a group of military men intervene, spiriting Kane and Lena to a compound far away.
When Lena awakens she is effectively signed up to the programme – she and five other scientists are to journey into The Shimmer and discover its secrets. They all have their own motives, though none are stated outright. Up to this point the film has been priming, but as soon as the oil-in-water wall is crossed, it begins in earnest. The Shimmer itself is a wonder to behold – think a meld of Stalker’s Zone and Avatar’s Pandora. It is a lush and living sci-fi world, a rarity in these days of minimalist harshness, but one just as treacherous as its stark counterparts. Melding is also something of prime importance in The Shimmer. Genetics here follow different rules, with all manner of fauna and flora merging and combining. The results are sometimes beautiful: a white stag, antlers decorated with blooming flowers; crystalline trees lining a beach, the remnants of smashed glass; trees taking human form, a green analogue of Hiroshima’s shadows; impossibly bright flowers on the forest floor. Just as often they are terrifying – an albino crocodile with concentric teeth, or a fierce bear-boar cross who screams with a human voice.
This world Garland has created bears little comparison elsewhere – it is a genuine marvel, and constantly fascinating to explore. While the cinematography never quite exploits this design to its full potential, each glimpse seems a privilege. But, as one might expect, Annihilation is not a literal walk in the park. It quickly takes on the character of several journeys into the unknown. Think Apocalypse Now, or Stalker, with a hint of Solaris. These comparisons do it little favours, however. While the mystery at the end of the road is constantly eluded to, as the film continues it begins to feel as though this mystery is hollow. Many questions are posed without answers, and – perhaps more essentially – they are not questions to which answers might be desired. The quest of the characters seems inconsequential, more a trip through some horrible fantasy land than a sci-fi with real stakes. Yes, the nature of the genetic mumbo-jumbo is mentioned a few times, but so what? Stalker did not rely solely on what might lie in the Room at the centre of the Zone, but rather on what the implications of this thing might be, whether or not it exists. The characters revealed themselves on the road, not only as analogical symbols, but as personalities. The Zone was unravelling their personas, despite a distinct lack of the obvious supernatural. In Annihilation the characters, besides Lena, have no depth whatsoever. A few have a single defining feature, but their main purpose is to act as horror-fodder (monsters gotta eat too) and to drive the plot; though Garland’s last film was focused on psychology, here he has created a film that does not engage with it.
As such, the film often functions more as a horror-thriller than as the high-concept sci-fi it’s billed as. Then again, it generally does so well. There is constant suspense for most of the middle section, and its toe-dip into body horror is more than welcome. In fact, that might be the best route for this film to have taken. A sprinkling of classic Cronenberg could both muffle the self-importance at play here and inject proceedings with the sort of gore Garland’s beautiful perdition could really do with. Instead, in the final twenty minutes Garland tosses his lot in with the surreal sci-fi ending, perhaps hoping he could bag a 2001. He gets closer to a Duck Soup. No, really. But the quality of Annihilation lies in the journey, the constant suggestion that fascination lies just a little further down the river. It slips when Garland’s threats of revelation grow ever louder without him pulling the trigger, not even a warning shot. Maybe he’s carrying blanks?
Annihilation is mainly viewable on Netflix. Borrow a friend’s account! Trailer below: