Annihilation movie review: Natalie Portman-starrer is a great addition to Netflix but is more suited to the big screen

Mihir Fadnavis

Mar 14, 2018 12:05:55 IST


Before we get into Annihilation let’s take a look at the state of mainstream cinema in general.

We’re at a stage in movie making and movie watching, where the less intelligent and more VFX-heavy the film is, the more money it seems to make.

Even the addition of a little amount of representation in a film is heralded as a bold and path breaking cinematic achievement. There are many recent examples of these films, including Black Panther and Wonder Woman which, let’s be honest, had more flaws than achievements when looked at sans the prism of gender and race politics.

 Annihilation movie review: Natalie Portman-starrer is a great addition to Netflix but is more suited to the big screen

Natalie Portman in Annihilation.

Secondly, any film that is deemed ‘too risky’ is being relegated to streaming platforms as opposed to a nice big screen release. While this is good for audiences’ comfort levels (they can watch the damn movie in the bathroom on their phone), this does great injustice to films that deserve a 70mm life line instead of the consumer entertainment product that it ultimately becomes and is forgotten about.

Both these factors become a point of irritation to anyone watching Annihilation because it is such a well made, thought provoking, intelligent piece of cinema that goes boldly in unexpected directions. This is such a quality film, in fact, that you wish it were a piece of crap that deserved the millennial version of a direct-to-dvd release. Moreover, the film is written and directed by Ex Machina’s Alex Garland.

So just to put things in perspective, this is a situation where a guy who wrote and directed an Academy award winning sci fi classic is tackling an even more challenging and expansive film, and instead of being rewarded with creative control and a worldwide theatrical release, his film is being given a streaming release. This is great for Netflix but this is not great for cinema.

Annihilation is based on Jeff VanderMeer’s book of the same name and chronicles a team of female military scientists who wade into a strange quarantined zone that seems to be emanating some sort of otherworldly phenomenon. Natalie Portman is Lena, a biologist whose husband had a weird experience with the quarantined area and she is now doubly curious about what went down inside. Accompanying her are Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson) and Cass (Tuva Notony) – and they all seem to have something in common – best left for you to discover.

What works brilliantly well is how Garland holds back on spoon feeding the information to the audience and makes you lean into the film, challenging you to solve the mystery. This is not your average run of the mill blockbuster; this is a puzzle disguised as a horror movie which is in turn disguised as sci fi exploration. As was the case with Ex Machina, Garland plays around with familiar sci fi tropes but takes a left field turn to tackle the clichés whenever they seem to present themselves.

One wouldn’t call Annihilation wholly original filmmaking, but there’s a certain level of originality in how Garland explores certain subjects we’re already familiar with, and that deserves due credit.

Hard boiled sci fi geeks will be able to solve the mystery half an hour into the film when the explorers spot some plants in the shape of human bodies, but you’ll never be able to guess how Garland executes the finale which is pumping with bizarre electronic score and strange visuals that feel like you’re peering into something transcendent, even forbidden. There’s almost no dialogue in the final half an hour and it becomes quite an experience to just sit back and marvel at the revelations unfolding on the screen.

A still from Annihilation.

The only uninteresting aspect of the movie is the framing device, which involves an interrogation of Portman’s character where she’s being grilled over what happened on the mission she went on. The atmospherics are cool – there are people in hazmat masks and the area they are in seems to be ominious but we’re already given the information that her character made it out alive. Without this knowledge her character would have had a much more interesting arc and we’d have rooted for her survival what with all the insanity she is put through in the quarantined zone.

But even before the mind bending finale there are two moments when the film grabs you by the gonads – one where a man’s entrails are revealed to be something horrific, and the second where the women who are holed up in a dark house hear a dead woman’s voice in the darkness coming towards them but what actually walks in is the stuff of nightmares. But it’s not just the shock value why the moments work, it’s something more than that. When it is actually revealed why this phenomenon is occurring it all fits together in a very elegant manner which makes the mystery box of the film rather memorable.

Garland knows that the mechanics of the science within Annihilation is integral to the danger posed to the investigating protagonists, and what makes him a great filmmaker is the believable coherence and the forbidding tone and atmosphere that he brings to make all this a thought provoking yet entertaining story.

On the Netflix side of things this is a good step up for sci fi after the disappointments of Bright and The Cloverfield Paradox, and although it is great that a large number of audiences can now watch Annihilation any number of times for free, there has to be some sort of a master deal between studios, distributors, movie theaters and Netflix so audience can enjoy both the theatrical experience that films like this demand and the quick streaming release that others would appreciate.

Annihilation is now streaming on Netflix India

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Updated Date: Mar 14, 2018 12:05:55 IST