There is something mystifying about science fiction. It is not easy to put exactly into words but there is a sense of adventure and creativity that is inherent to any work of sci-fi. Maybe it’s so compelling because there will always be new ideas to create, new stories to tell and new worlds to build and explore.
Alex Garland’s new, incredibly unique film, “Annihilation,” is a perfect example of just how special of a genre science fiction is. The themes it explores, the visuals it presents and the moments of blood-pumping action and toe-curling suspense epitomize the spirit of the genre perfectly.
The film hit theaters this past weekend to a strong critical success but poor ticket sales, being overshadowed by the likes of big, blockbuster movies like “Black Panther” and “Game Night,” both of which are at the very least good films, but “Annihilation” manages to set itself apart from them in a lot of ways that make it disappointing it’s not seeing a better reception.
The film is based off of the first installment of Jeff Vandermeer’s “Southern Reach Trilogy” of the novels, also named “Annihilation.” The novel was predicted to never have an adaptation reach the screen because it would be difficult to translate to film, but director Alex Garland apparently took that as a challenge. Garland, who previously wrote and directed the 2014 film “Ex Machina,” took on the task and thought he could bring the trippy, confusing and hauntingly beautiful world depicted in the novel to life. Surprisingly, he managed to pull it off.
The movie is probably best experienced knowing as little as possible prior to viewing. Without giving too much away, the plot centers around an enclosed hemisphere lined by a translucent, colorful wall called “The Shimmer.” When this hemisphere appears on Earth, an army veteran and biologist named Lena (Natalie Portman), along with a crew of fellow scientists and doctors, venture into the unknown to try to study it.
Portman gives one of the best performances of her career, playing a reserved but deep character in Lena. Though the writing and dialogue occasionally suffer from some awkwardness, Portman manages to make the most of it and keeps up a strong performance. Tessa Thompson (“Westworld”) and Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”) also both give noteworthy performances with the only real lacking performance coming from Jennifer Jason Leigh, which came as a surprise. It may have been a fault of direction but some part of her character just fell extremely flat.
Something noteworthy about the film is that the five main cast members are all women, but neither the script nor the director go out of their way to make a big deal out of it. It’s a subtle way to make a feminist statement in a story, but it’s a natural way of doing it and it normalizes the fact that women are capable of taking part in and building an amazing science fiction narrative, a genre which has unfortunately often been disproportionately male.