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In 2014, Alex Garland made one of the most astonishing directorial debuts in recent memory, spellbinding audiences with his claustrophobic, brilliant Ex Machina. He was hardly a novice, previously penning fantastic scripts for movies like 28 Days Later and Sunshine -- but being in the director's chair revealed a whole new dimension of Garland's gifts. It was made clear that he was capable of not only telling captivating and intelligent stories, but could personally tell them with his own gorgeous, detailed voice.
Now Alex Garland's second work as a director is here, and while it's not specifically an original creation (instead an adaptation of a novel), the great takeaway is affirming just how talented the writer/director is. Annihilation -- armed with a stellar cast, rich themes about the nature of humanity, and sequences so tense you'll bite through your fingertips -- is a phenomenal work, and even though it is coming out in the early months of the year, it's a candidate to ultimately be considered one of the best of 2018.
Inspired by the Jeff VanderMeer book of the same name, the non-linear story reveals the experiences of Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and former military officer who finds herself tasked with a terrifying exploratory mission. Approximately a year after the disappearance of her soldier husband (Oscar Isaac), Lena finds him back in her house, but he's seriously sick and unable to explain anything about where he's been. In her search for answers, she is brought to a mysterious facility known as Area X, established on the border of an alien-infested territory referred to as The Shimmer.
Those stationed at Area X have spent years studying the strange phenomenon, but have failed to learn much because anything that passes the pearlescent barrier never returns. That said, its constant expansion is seen as an imminent threat demanding further study. Needing answers about what happened to her husband, Lena volunteers to be a member of the latest expedition -- which finds her teamed up with a group of four other women (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny) ready to make the same leap for their own personal reasons. Each of them brings a particular specialty to the operation, however absolutely nothing can prepare them for what's waiting.
Alex Garland's alien world building is stunning and transporting -- all while never taking audiences away from planet Earth. The story essentially lets the filmmaker design a whole new world beyond the walls of The Shimmer, and like a truly great sci-fi storyteller he digs in deep, defines his rules, and molds life unlike any way we've ever seen it -- full of colorful mutating flora, to beautiful/terrifying hybrid fauna. The work with his design and effects teams is utterly breathtaking, with each new sequence unveiling something that is in equal parts a reflection of the beauty of life and the horror of death. It's an entirely different aesthetic than the one featured in Ex Machina, but it's still equally mesmerizing, and the integration of both the practical and digital is magical.
With its dense themes about human nature and self-destruction wrapped into its narrative, and a finale that is clearly designed to promote endless discussion, Annihilation is a film that will proudly carry the label "heady sci-fi," but also never lets contemplation totally outweigh thrills. There is certainly a deliberateness to the storytelling, allowing the audience to fully absorb the world of The Shimmer, but it also feels like at no point is it ever more than 10 minutes away from scaring the hell out of you (without spoilers, one particular sequence in the second act is so intense and deliciously prolonged that I literally found myself hyperventilating and dizzy). It's a complex balancing act, as tipping too far in either direction could easily undercut what's being executed at large, but Garland nails it.
Of course, Annihilation not only has some immense talent working behind the camera, but also a tremendous ensemble playing out the story in front of it. Natalie Portman is front and center with a convincing and fantastic portrayal of Lena's intelligence, bravery, and deep flaws, but she is supported by some of the best actors working today. Both Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez are both perfect playing against type, disappearing into the personalities of the meek Josie and aggressive Anya, respectively; while Jennifer Jason Leigh delivers an awesome commanding performance as the hard-edged Dr. Ventress. Even Oscar Isaac gets to do some showing off in what is a more limited part -- offering audiences some genuinely chilling moments.
In an age when cinematic sci-fi tends to be more consumable than cerebral, it's easy to appreciate the big films that come few and far between. With Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve has emerged as an important name on this front, but right beside him is Alex Garland. Annihilation is perfect proof that that he is the real deal as a director and visionary -- not only creating a world that you will fall right into, but one that's so fascinating that you'll want to investigate it over and over. It's been a long wait since Ex Machina, but Garland proved it was worth it.