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Director: Alex Garland

Screenplay: Alex Garland

Starring: Natalie PortmanJennifer Jason LeighTessa Thompson

Review: David Stephens

The next big exclusive film to get a heavily promoted release by Sir Net of the Flix is this much anticipated sci-fi horror directed/written by Alex Garland. (NB: At least that’s the situation in the UK where it bypassed cinemas to go straight to streaming, despite the theatrical outing in the US). This is his follow-up to the critically acclaimed android movie “Ex Machina”, which is officially credited as his directorial debut, although recent comments by actor Karl Urban point to “Dredd” as actually being that. The story is based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, which is the first in a series of three books called the Southern Reach Trilogy. It stars Natalie Portman and a mostly female cast as they explore a strange land that produces severe mutations. The film has had hugely positive reviews so far and certainly contains some grim genre elements. So YGROY takes a look at some shimmering violence and learns what may lurk in Area X.

It opens with a dishevelled Lena (Portman) sitting in a quarantined room, flanked by scientists in hazmat suits as she undergoes a military debriefing. Flashback several months and we discover that Lena is a biology tutor, who is still grief-stricken by the disappearance of her Army husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) during a secret mission over a year ago. Therefore she is dumbfounded to find him walk into her home, albeit with a loss of memory. He subsequently collapses with a bloody seizure and both of them are subdued and kidnapped by the US military en route to the hospital. Taken to a secret location, Lena is confronted with the existence of “The Shimmer”, a rainbow coloured wall of light that is slowly expanding into the US countryside and swampland. The land behind The Shimmer is known as “Area X” and Kane is the only person to have returned from it, despite the many expeditions that have taken place. Having army-training herself, Lena persuades lead scientist Dr Ventress (a quietly brilliant Jennifer Jason Leigh) to allow her to join the next venture into Area X. (NB: The gung-ho male soldiers just weren’t cutting the mustard). So a small group of determined women bravely walk into the alien landscape behind the Shimmer, where mutants lurk and nothing is what it seems…

Whatever else you take away from “Annihilation”, it is unquestionably a pretty unique mixture of intellectual sci-fi ideas, conjoined with some really disturbing horror sequences. The film was originally blindsided by accusations of “whitewashing”, and test screenings were (allegedly) disastrous. The structure of the plot also veers substantially away from the novel of the same name, and adds details from the other books in the trilogy. Nevertheless, and even with the Netflix-exclusive deal outside of the US, it’s actually turned out to be something of a gem that’s well worth checking out…

The plot itself feels like pure sci-fi in the fashion of such well-regarded films like “Sunshine” (also written by Garland), as well as Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” and “Stalker”. “Stalker” especially shares a similar narrative, with strangers wandering into an “alien” zone for differing reasons. But here it’s supplemented with a (very) generous portion of pure horror and unease. In fact (and we can’t take credit for this accurate observation) the story can also be neatly compared to that of Lovecraft’s queasy body-horror tale “The Colour out of Space”. If that sounds like it’s all a bit disjointed, it really isn’t. And despite the occasional pacing issues, the near-2hr running time flows much quicker than you would anticipate.

The exposition is performed quite efficiently, and although we get the obligatory flashbacks, it all marches forwards nicely. Once the group enters Area X, the strongest elements really ramp up. The weirdness initially starts with time-loss and mild disorientation, before plant/animal mutations start to make themselves known. It makes for a quite beguiling mixture of dreamlike imagery (multi-coloured fungus, crystalline trees, plants in the shape of bodies), and sheer balls-out horror (several attacks by hideous mutants, distorted corpses, etc). Genre fans will be especially impressed with a nasty moment of body-horror, involving a voluntary disembowelment. But they will also hug themselves with glee at a certain scene involving a mutated creature that provides a pitch-perfect scene of tension and terror (and has already achieved a level of notoriety online).

The narrative is aided by strong performances by all the cast including; Portman, Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny. Portman gives it a strong emotional heart, but Jason Leigh also quietly impresses with an understated portrayal of a cold and distant scientist with her own reasons for passing through the Shimmer. Although it’s not oversold, each of the characters is “damaged” in some way and it effects their reaction to Area X, without showing them as simple stereotypes. It all leads to a climax that manages to build-up to a “2001”-like strangeness along with some unorthodox threats to identity, which points to several themes like humanity’s proclivity towards self-destruction or over-examination.

It’s not perfect though, as flashbacks and certain sequences drag on for too long, and the abundance of CGI towards the end is a bit jarring. It’s best not to think on some of the details too much either (How could the military possibly cover-up Area X in this day and age?), and it would have been nice to see more “mutants”. Without giving anything away, the ending is a little predictable and obvious which feels a bit disappointing with all that has come before. Having said all that though, there are some wonderful incidental details that are slipped in and only become apparent (and important) on repeat viewings (the connection one character has with plants, the barely glimpsed “Ouroboros” tattoo, mutating water droplets, etc.) The soundtrack is also wonderfully eccentric, veering between folksy guitar strumming and “2001” orchestral dirges.

In essence and despite criticism about being “too intellectual”, the story is quite straightforward at the base level and pretty much everything is explained (if not resolved). But the film has that indefinable quality that makes parts of it linger in your head, and think about it for days afterwards. Whether that’s due to the screaming bears, floral humans, or human frailties, will be down to what you take away from it. So there is slightly more style than substance, but it does throw some big ideas in there and it looks gorgeous (which makes the immediate transition to the small screen something of a shame). So when you combine all that together (along with the unashamed horror scenes), it all adds up to something outside of the norm. It’s more than likely to appeal to those who swooned at “Arrival” rather than “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, but if you’re open to a mature experience it is superior sci-fi horror.

A thoroughly mesmerising mix of existential sci-fi and body horror. Portman is incredibly solid in the lead role, as are the rest of the female-centric cast. It is overlong, and the ending isn’t quite as clever as it thinks it is. But that’s more than forgivable when you soak up the gorgeous imagery, some horrific sequences, and the dreamlike atmosphere. Slightly more style than substance, but still terrific.
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