"Annihilation" grants viewers a dazzling view into the sci-fi world

"Annihilation" grants viewers a dazzling view into the sci-fi world

We movie fans have been blessed over the past few years with some of the best, most ambitious and most divisive science-fiction films ever made.

Films such as “Interstellar,” “Arrival,” “Blade Runner 2049,” and director Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” have given us some of the most thought-provoking, emotionally rich and visually dazzling films of recent years.

“Annihilation” is best enjoyed without knowing too much about it, so I’ll keep the synopsis brief. Essentially, a mysterious zone referred to as “The Shimmer” has appeared, and biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) joins a team of four other scientists on an expedition inside to find answers about its existence.

Beauty in all its forms

One thing can be said about “Annihilation” without question: this film is gorgeous to behold. The colors are muted yet vibrant, especially once inside The Shimmer, which provides an almost pastel rainbow backdrop to an otherwise earthy green and brown swamp.

The overgrown plant life that overtakes the sparse human structures gives the film an aesthetic reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic world, yet the subtle affectations and alterations of the natural order provide a fantastical beauty that brings an otherworldliness to what is otherwise mundane.

Fortunately, the film is beautiful in many ways beyond merely the visual. In fact, “Annihilation” seems to relish in its own beauty—using it as both a thematic and narrative tool. Like the audience, the characters are taking in the new and mysterious environment. Just as each has a different motivation for going on this expedition, each has a different way of reacting to the new developments and challenges the world brings.

The film finds beauty in everything. It shows the beauty in life, in creation, in humanity, in change—and in the destruction of all of these things. The film seems to view destruction itself as the beautiful foundation upon which everything is built, and it brings that idea to life with strikingly beautiful and shockingly disturbing visuals. You’re often left feeling both creation and destruction at the same time.

Life as we know it

Each of the five women at the center of this film have distinct perspectives on life, and this serves as the driving force for these characters and, in a way, the film as a whole. Aside from Lena, we are given only enough information about the characters to understand who they are and why they ended up on this expedition.

This basic amount of verbal information provides great depth into the themes the film taps into as the characters act the way they do. The motivations vary from finding a way to feel alive, accepting fate, escaping the pain of loss and fighting one's own self-destruction—just to name a few.

Examining the biological make-up

Writer/director Alex Garland, known for writing such acclaimed genre films as “Sunshine” (2007) and “28 Days Later” (2002), broke into directing with his excellent 2015 debut, “Ex Machina.” With his first film, he already seemed like a seasoned director, and with “Annihilation” he has crafted an even greater and more ambitious follow-up that deserves to be listed among the best sci-fi of recent years.

The film balances heady sci-fi themes with compelling drama and an intriguing mystery that fully engrosses while also giving the viewer a lot to think about. It also features intense terror experiences that, while not the central feature of movie, added a level of suspense and much greater stakes while not sacrificing the narrative to the sensationalism of horror.

The cast is terrific across the board. Natalie Portman does some of her best work in the lead role, and the other four women that make up the team bring something different to each of their roles. Tessa Thompson in particular stood out to me, as she played a very subdued and quiet character who managed to grab more of my attention than some of the others.

Cells divide, and sometimes films do too

I think “Annihilation” has taken its seat with the best of the genre. It's an artful and slow-paced film that doesn’t give us clear answers as we wade through the mud of symbolism and metaphors. This tends to be the case with many sic-fi films, and while I and many others enjoy the challenge of dissecting a film like this over multiple viewings, I’d be foolish to think that everyone shares that perspective.

Others are bound to find it indulgent and pretentious, and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.

That being said, I think it’s worth checking out such a truly unique film that's complex and challenging in a way few modern studio films are. It’s a fantastic film that is worth the risk—and the reward—of experiencing.

“Annihilation” is rated R for violence, bloody images, language, and some sexuality. The language is definitely R-rated and it does occur frequently, but it's not excessive. The sexuality is present, but it is not graphic; it is very infrequent, and there is no nudity. The main thing to be aware of is the violence and bloody images, which, while infrequent, are significant and extremely disturbing. This film is not recommended to anyone who has a strong aversion to seeing these things represented on film.

Rated R for violence, bloody images, language, and some sexuality.

Runtime: 1hr 55min

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriguez

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