In the 50 years since its premiere, “2001: A Space Odyssey” has influenced countless filmmakers to push the boundaries of the science-fiction genre. Numerous critical commercial successes, such as “Blade Runner” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” clearly display the remarkable impact of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece.
Until recently, I was convinced that no film could hope to recreate the mystical feeling of experiencing “2001” for the first time. “Surely,” I would think, “no film can again chip away at my subconscious as subtly enough to immerse me in an almost uncomfortable world of bewildering awe and hefty themes.” You may then understand how surprised I was when, upon stumbling into an auditorium in May of this year, I rediscovered this kind of magic.
As a cinephile, I understand how scandalously blasphemous comparing any Sci-Fi film to “2001” can be. However, for Alex Garland’s “Annihilation,” I am willing to commit such a sin.
“Annihilation” is based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name and stars Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny. In short, it is the mind-bending tale of five scientists who venture into a mysterious quarantine zone on the New England coast after an unknown, translucent alien entity lands and threatens to slowly encompass the globe.
Early in the film, biology professor and ex-soldier Lena (Natalie Portman) witnesses her missing husband’s (Oscar Isaac) unexpected return. Shocked at his appalling condition, Lena joins a team of scientists and enters “the Shimmer,” where the laws of nature become exponentially perverse the further one advances . In the Shimmer, the team attempts to retrace an earlier group’s steps, gather scientific data and eventually reach the lighthouse where the alien entity initially struck. Along the way, Lena and the others encounter all sorts of mutated life, ranging from somewhat unusual plants to deer with flowers growing out of their antlers (and some more menacing creatures that I am choosing to conceal).
Like in “2001,” “Annihilation’s” sound design sets the mood for the film’s most unsettling scenes. Piercing, upsetting noise is carefully inserted into tense moments to enhance their effect, while soothing musical scores are implemented throughout the alluring forest sequences. A scene where the team finds a forgotten video-tape is especially memorable; in this scene, disturbing imagery and unsettling sounds are interwoven to create an unforgettable, as well as an unforgettably uncomfortable, experience. The movie also features a fantastic song, which I will not spoil.
“I believe now is an appropriate time to tell you that if you decide to watch “Annihilation”, you should get ready to think.”
“Annihilation” combines the visual styles of several iconic Sci-Fi films to create a novel aesthetic. In a way, the film feels like a combination of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” John Carpenter’s The Thing,” Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival,” and, as you might have guessed, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “Annihilation’s” visuals are overall stylistically stunning. At first, the film looks fairly realistic, then slowly lets us in on more and more visual brilliancy, mounting up to a spectacular third act. Do not, however, be fooled by my extravagant language into believing that “Annihilation” is an action movie. Although the film has several instances of violence, it is mostly a slow burn; the visuals that I just called spectacular mainly serve to enhance scenes’ atmosphere and to drive metaphorical storytelling.
While on the topic of metaphorical storytelling, I believe now is an appropriate time to tell you that if you decide to watch “Annihilation,” you should get ready to think. This film is a so-called “Cerebral Sci-Fi,” and you can be certain that in a room of “Annihilation” fans, you will find a broad variety of explanations for the film’s underlying themes, messages and intentions. While watching “Annihilation,” one may find numerous patterns, yet exactly what they point toward will remain a mystery for many viewers. Although the movie asks many questions—it provides little resolution and rather allows the audience freedom to interpret – the further you delve into the details, the more “Annihilation” keeps giving. Perhaps I am crackpot mumbling to myself in the corner about my “art movie,” or maybe I just found a film too agreeable with my subjective taste. However, I believe that most moviegoers who have seen Annihilation will agree that the film endorses interpretation and, more importantly, discourse.
“Annihilation,” besides a technically masterful film, is an opportunity for movie fans to get together and discuss their interpretations.
“What did the glass mean?”
“Was that really her?”
“And what about the eyes?”
I cannot take credit for the above claim regarding discourse, because popular film critic Chris Stuckmann (YouTube: Chris Stuckmann) gave me the idea in his “Annihilation” review. Nevertheless, I love this film’s capacity to facilitate critical cinematic discussion, and I believe that we should support films like “Annihilation,” because if we ignore such thoughtful films, it will be nothing but Transformers movies and other nostalgic reboot cash-grabs for ever and ever until the Sun grows cold.
Also extra points to “Annihilation” for the all-female team.
Chris Sassaris is a student at West Chester University. ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org.