ANNIHILATION, the 2018 adaptation by writer-director Alex Garland of the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s highly regarded “Southern Reach Trilogy”, is another genre bright spot from its decade, one marked by sci-fi movies that display ideas as well as hardware. Garland had already gifted the futuristic crew back in ’15 with Ex Machina.*
Something from outer space has landed on the southern coast of the U.S., creating a mysterious—and spreading—shield dubbed ‘The Shimmer.’ Exploratory teams can enter, but only one man (Oscar Isaac) from one team has returned, and he’s not quite right. A fresh scientific mission goes in, including his wife (Natalie Portman), a cellular biologist and former soldier. With her are a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), and a geomorphologist (Tuva Novotny). While each has their strengths, they all have particular weak points that may be revealed within the intoxicating and lethal beauty of The Shimmer.
Unfortunately, in the cold universe of commerce, the film lived up to its name. Panicked by a restless preview response, studio execs deemed the end results “too intellectual”. In a case of smarts vs. intelligence divided by wisdom subtracted by dollar signs, a cut & run release strategy was decided on, with most overseas distribution done via the double-edged sword of streaming. Protest from director Garland went by the wayside. With the film costing at least $40,000,000, perhaps as much as $55,000,000, the bungled roll-out insured that an audience—whether they could figure out the show or not—was too scarce. A gross of $43,071,000, 92nd place for the year, marked this gripping and thoughtful tale as a major money dud.
Their loss is your find, as it’s a movie that calls for a little brightness from your own bulb to go with oohs and aahs over the richly tricked-out visual palette, and an occasional, appreciative “That’s pretty cool” over the chiller aspects to be dealt with, like mutated wildlife. Part dreamy (the flora), part nightmare (the fauna), it’s a puzzle in which the interlocking pieces provoke while they please. Lush, ambiguous, meditative and creepy, the quintet’s journey into The Shimmer evokes traces of the best doppelganger “invasive” thrillers like The Thing and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and the classic “one-by-one” attrition hook dating back to The Lost Patrol. Interjecting the germ element of self-destruction as something inherent to our specie is a tasty tease on its own. Excellent casting seals the human end, not just by having good actresses in harmony, but by refreshingly showing the all-female team without referencing their sex: they’re just professionals who all happen to be women. The script and direction are too assured and respectful to lazily fall back on standard shed-clothes-when-in-danger tropes.
Thinking cap to the side, this is also high-caliber eye candy, with its sumptuous production design, art direction and iris-widening special effects. Those new-improved Bambi’s are pretty cute, but watch out for that one-ton albino alligator and the swamp bear from beyond bad acid.
Helping goose the nerves to further lock in the otherworldly atmosphere is the weird and unsettling sonic music score developed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. Andrew Whitehurst supervised the visual effects. Mark Digby was Production Designer. With Benedict Wong and David Gyasi. 115 minutes.
* Good-lookin’ and brainy, too: Gravity, The Martian, Arrival, Passengers, Interstellar, Blade Runner 2049, Alien: Covenant, Ad Astra ….more to marvel over than merely Marvel at.
The other two books in VanderMeer’s 901-page saga are “Authority” and “Acceptance”. The three were published in a spread over eight months in 2014. Though the movie’s disappointing box office was likely to preclude sequels, it did scoop up another $7,105,000 in the afterlife of disc sales, and its artistic validity will hold its value.