February 2018 has been a popular month for science-fiction/fantasy movies! Director J.J. Abrams “pulled a Beyoncé” and dropped a surprise prequel to the Cloverfield franchise (The Cloverfield Paradox) on Netflix after the Superbowl; Marvel Studios’ Black Panther literally slashed box office records with the biggest opening weekend ever; and this coming weekend, Natalie Portman stars in Annihilation, a novel-turned-movie that sets a very different tone in the ever-shifting genres. 

Based on the best-selling debut novel in the Southern Reach Trilogy by award-winning writer Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation (the novel) follows four women – an anthropologist, a surveyor, a psychologist, and a biologist (the narrator) – into an unidentified realm of wonder.  The “Southern Reach” refers to a clandestine government agency that deals with all matters connected to “Area X.” In the book, writer Jeff Vandermeer describes Area X as an unimaginable and consuming force of nature: “The beauty of it cannot be understood and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside of you. Desolation tries to colonize you.” Annihilation (the movie) tries to imagine the unimaginable, but Vandermeer’s words seem to paint a clearer picture than director Alex Garland’s visuals.

If you have read the book, it’s suggested you enter the theatre without any expectations. The adaptation of Annihilation only loosely borrows from the book’s concepts, so anything to do with a “Tower” or the “Crawlers” is scratched, and the lighthouse becomes the focal point of “The Shimmer,” a term used in the film to describe the mysterious zone the women travel into. Annihilation, as weird and creepy as it may be, is still a Hollywood film, so it’s not even a quarter as disturbing as the source material.

That said, writer/director Alex Garland (Ex-Machina, 28 Days Later) delivers a spine-tingling understanding of Annihilation, despite there being so many differences from the original story. The movie has been riddled with reports of behind-the-scenes squabbles leading up to its release, and last summer, after a poor test screening, producer David Ellison (Mission Impossible: Fallout) felt the plot was “too intellectual” and “too complicated” for mainstream audiences. He wasn’t wrong. The story is intellectual and complicated, and while the notion that a film adaptation of Annihilation may be too sophisticated for mainstream audiences, the movie has a lot of potentials. It’s alluring, well-acted, and zealously fuses elements of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Natalie Portman (V For Vendetta, Black Swan) stars as Lena, a soldier-turned-biologist coping with the mysterious loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac, Ex-Machina, Star Wars: The Last Jedi). Kane disappeared on a mission so secret he couldn’t even tell Lena where he was going, but Lena wants answers. And so does the government. Both are confounded by Kane’s mission, so Lena is taken to the frontlines of Area X, where a new fleet is being put together to enter The Shimmer. The team, led by the enigmatic Dr. Ventriss (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight), consists of Lena and three other experts: Anya Thorensson (Gina Rodriguez, Jane The Virgin), Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson, Thor: Ragnarok), and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny, Nobel). “All women,” notes Lena.

The awe of Annihilation lies within the visual grandeur of The Shimmer and the capabilities of the actors. Every actor has at least one strong moment, and their talent – fused with the astonishment of what the hell is actually going on – makes for a wild fantasy ride. Annihilation may be an intellectual and complicated story, but it would be a shame for mainstream movie-goers to overlook a film like this. Its intricacies are both its strong and weak suits; their fusion makes for a film that could possibly only resonate with true genre fans. “That’s the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen,” I heard someone say as the theatre let out. I’m sure they won’t be alone in thinking that.

Overall, it is refreshing to see an all-female cast in a sci-fi/fantasy/horror thriller that doesn’t rely on sex appeal and unconventional attire to fit into a genre that is notoriously male-dominated. These women are strong, smart, practical, and diverse (Gina Rodriguez’ character Anya even reveals she’s a Lesbian), and together, they grip at physical and psychological warfare. The Shimmer turns the beauty we see in nature against our better judgements, so while this mysterious film may break genre barriers with a predominantly female cast and phantasmagorical new concept, it veers far away from the book’s original story and instead only brings a glimpse of understanding almost too complex for the big screen. “What is happening…?”

Annihilation breaks existing genre moulds, but by the end of the 2h running time, this film makes the mistake of taking a bow instead of clearing the air. Without any precedence, it’s easy to get as lost in The Shimmer as the protagonists do, but if you step out from the movie’s translucent shadow, the story is a thought-provoking journey of radiant and confounded stimulus, weaving the natural elements of the earth with unthinkable science. Yes, it falls short by showing too much in the trailer (what else is new) and fails to bring the book’s true plight to the big screen, but the rest is up to the viewer’s interpretation. Combined with an eerie film score and jarring spurts of action, audiences may be thinking about this one for a while. 

“Fear What’s Inside.”

3.5 Popcorn Kernals / 5

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About the Author

Joey Viola is the Co-Founder of MoJo Toronto and an LGBTQ community leader who utilizes his passion and flair for the art of writing by bringing a fresh perspective in reviewing entertainment and advocating for equality, tolerance, and social/political justice.