Movie gives new meaning to ‘chilling with Netflix’
'Annihilation' is a streaming sci-fi scare-fest starring Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh
“Straight to Netflix” were beginning to feel like dread words for fans of speculative cinema, or at least those who had persevered through David Ayer’s Bright, or worse still, Duncan Jones’s Mute lately. Annihilation blows them sky-high.
Exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure, it’s an achievement painfully deserving of the exposure it’s not getting in cinemas. The film’s imagery – rich, dreamlike, disturbing scenes – deserves the biggest screen you can find to watch it on, not an iPad propped on a pillow.For Alex Garland, it’s in every way a step forward from 2015’s Ex Machina, the cerebral thriller about artificial intelligence that formally marked his directorial debut, following his boldly imagined script for Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (2007) and uncredited supervision of Dredd (2012). As in all those films, the world-building and idea-building of Annihilation go hand in hand; more than any of them, this one makes us wait to grasp its deadly logic in full.Jeff Vandermeer’s source book, the first part of his much-ballyhooed Southern Reach Trilogy, has shape-shifted slightly in Garland’s hands: there are five women, not four, entering the mysterious quarantine zone called Area X, and now they have names.
An anomaly called the Shimmer, ever-enlarging, and threatening to mutate nature’s DNA coding into previously unimaginable hybrid forms, has thus far swallowed up every expedition sent in to investigate it, with only one known survivor: a soldier called Kane (Oscar Isaac), who vanished for a full year, presumed dead by his biologist wife Lena (Natalie Portman), only to return to her door like a haunted Odysseus.Proof that Vandermeer’s most unexpected inspiration might be Virginia Woolf, their destination is a lighthouse along a stretch of beach, from which the Shimmer first seems to have emanated. Every step towards it brings mutations, paranoia and a general erosion of solid reality. Like the adventurers wandering through the Zone in Tarkovsky’s forbidding Stalker, or indeed the cosmonauts bewitched by a mysterious ocean planet in Solaris, they lose their grip.
But the film certainly doesn’t. Garland has a rock-solid grasp of how flexible his genre’s template can be, but also when an audience needs to be jolted out of reverie.The visual effects, by the team which won an Oscar for Ex Machina, are sublimely distinctive, but also varied. There are horrors in store to rival anything in Carpenter’s The Thing, but also playful surrealist touches that Lewis Carroll would have taken to heart, like the flowers entwining themselves inquisitively into humanoid form.
Camcorder footage from Kane’s previous expedition is found, and only sows panic among the group, some of whom refuse to believe what they’re seeing; later, in a horrific coup of voice imitation, they will wrongly believe what they’re hearing, too.
Portman’s high-tension acting, her inability to relax, suits the material down to the ground. It’s one of her best performances, moving through credible grief and bewilderment, but facing up bullishly to her fears by the end, and finding some kind of exhausted resolve to interrogate them.The last half-hour of screen time is a what-the-heck-was-that marvel of risk-taking and trippy design, which still holds on to terra firma stakes – there’s no cheat’s escape into a star-gate, but a blood-freezing vision of human consciousness under threat. It’s an experience to plunge into, loud and large: Netflix and chilling will never have quite the same meaning again.
© The Daily Telegraph
The movie is available on Netflix, if you dare.