Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Annihilation’ challenges genre tropes, but is overambitious with its execution

Innovative but elitist

(courtesy of IMDB)

(courtesy of IMDB)

(courtesy of IMDB)

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When you sit and embark on the ambitious journey of Alex Garland’s “Annihilation,” the first thing you’ll notice is the power of its perfectly timed tranquility, which can only be described as visual silence. Like so many great horror films, Garland harnesses the fear associated with anticipation, letting the intensity build to towering heights before letting it crash down in a violent, haunting climax. But with such a focus on the calm before the storm, there runs the risk of the plot getting too consumed by itself, ultimately losing momentum and cracking under the pressure of such innovation. With “Annihilation,” Garland steers us down a dark path that inspires and captivates but in the end loses the casual viewer to a convoluted plot.

In this sci-fi/horror adventure, which is based off of the first novel in the Southern Reach Trilogy, written by Jeff VanderMeer, a mysterious force field known only as the Shimmer begins to expand after a meteor hits Earth. Looking vastly similar to oil when it mixes with water, this multicolored dome begins to expand, consuming everything it touches like a cancer. What happens within the bubble, however, is unknown, as no one has ever returned after venturing through its barrier.

Natalie Portman plays Lena, a former member of the military who now teaches biology at a thriving medical school. After her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns from the Shimmer in life-threatening conditions, the true dangers of this growing force field become known. With the help of four other scientists, Lena will travel inside the Shimmer to discover its origin and hopefully stop it from spreading once and for all.

With every great adventure story comes the glamorization of danger, and “Annihilation” advances that idea with its mesmerizing world, which camouflages its perils in a beautiful shell of lush forests, shimmering crystals and vibrant wildlife. This creates a sense of peace and, as mentioned above, tranquility; however, within this gorgeous and inviting world lies a mutated sense of reality: the dissolving of understandable time, plants that mimic human shapes and interspecies that defy all forms of science and explanation. It’s a terrifying hell that looks and sounds like heaven, and the further the team ventures into the mysterious bubble, the more uneasy you start to feel.

The horror elements are executed brilliantly, combining brutal imagery with a boisterous and bass-heavy score. It carries the necessary jungle survival tropes for it to feel familiar while, at the same time, entirely new; it lessens its grip on violence to focus on the dangers that create such turmoil. The result is horrific and nightmare fuel, yet it doesn’t overstay its welcome and still allows for the in-depth plot to remain in the spotlight.

The brooding terror is enhanced by Rob Hardy’s incredibly slow and cautious cinematography. He ditches the clichés of the shaky, anxiety-driven camera movements of action and adventure, and relies on serenity, creating a sense of calm even when something brutal is occurring within the frame. The CGI isn’t fantastic, which can sometimes take away from the overall shot, but Hardy’s ability to manipulate peaceful movements with apprehension is nothing less than impressive.

The biggest issue with the film, however, is the tangled story. It’s set up to make audiences think – as 2017’s “Mother!” tried to do – but it fails to reach a general audience due to its labyrinth of a narrative. The non-linear approach is fun to untangle, especially in the first and second acts, but the overall meaning of the film’s provocative conclusion will more than likely lose the majority of the crowd. Unfortunately, this forces “Annihilation” to feel pretentious at times, and makes dissection more of a chore than a fascinating dive into something innovative. As someone who studies film, I appreciated the ambiguity, but I couldn’t help but notice the groans of the people around me when almost nothing gets fully answered.

Luckily, the film challenges adventure and horror tropes by letting the almost entirely female cast dominate the screen, which will no doubt captivate audiences. Portman is stellar as the lead, matching the film’s more tranquil aesthetic with a complacent and dignified performance. She matches brilliantly with her co-stars, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tessa Thompson, all of whom share the same cautious yet demanding behavior. They emit a sense of composure that will calm the viewer, which inevitably makes the more intense moments even more harrowing. It all comes together in vivid harmony and at the very least questions the cinematic importance and responsibility of adaptation.

Charlie Turner can be reached at [email protected]

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