Annihilation: Smart, stunning feminine power: but not from the support

Following her soldier husband’s (Oscar Isaac) mysterious return from a government-quarantined zone known as ‘Area X’, reclusive cellular biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) joins a band of researchers to enter the terrifying, transmogrifying sphere and discover how to stop it expanding.

In Annihilation, Alex Garland rediscovers the winning formula for edgy smart-fi with a strong female presence. Indeed, feminine power has been a quiet undercurrent in much of his work since his screenwriting debut 28 Days Later, and was most obvious in his excellent directorial debut Ex Machina. Alicia Vilkander’s haunting performance, which earned her an Oscar nomination, was strongly guided by Garland’s obsession with showing a feminine cycle of growth and destruction.

With Annihilation, this theme is cranked up to a ten as the world inside ‘Area X’ morphs, mutates and is wholly rebirthed by the growing ‘Shimmer’. Mother Nature has gone mad. Symbols of femininity are everywhere; from flowers blooming wildly to the womb-like chamber Portman enters through a hole in the ground to discover the Shimmer’s otherworldly humanoid entity. What follows is a definitively mesmerising piece of cinema, played out like a Pink Floyd acid dream, perfectly encapsulating the cycle of birth and self-destruction.

Natalie Portman’s portrayal of protagonist Lena is rending, becoming the singularity of Annihilation’s emotional power. Every minute on screen reveals another layer of character depth. Seeing Kane’s survival offers a chance for cathartic rebirth from her secluded mourning, but instead we see the soldier in her emerge as she gets deeper into Area X. From there, guilt, longing, and anger surface, these crippling emotions fuelling her even as she struggles to comprehend the madness around her. such is her grim determination to make sense of it all. A truly excellent performance.

It’s a shame the other performances didn’t deliver the way Natalie Portman’s did. The all-female group dynamic could have offered some interesting moments, but whether down to scripting or the cast, the support never get beyond background scenery. Oscar Isaac, admittedly with little to do, delivers on an emptied character with a muted performance. Jennifer Jason Leigh, who has starred in some great films recently, gets lost in a confusing mess of character but still manages to work well off Portman. It’s the rest of the team that miss the mark. Tess Thompson, fresh off kicking ass as in Thor: Ragnarok is unmemorable, while Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin) didn’t seem up to playing the archetypal ‘one that goes mad’. Even worse is the seeming lack in affording these characters depth – at one point their character flaws are trotted out in a neat and cliched monologue, before their individualities fade back into the background. It just didn’t work, and with a better fleshed-out team, Annihilation could have become a classic.

While Annihilation’s distribution problems mean it will likely end up as a hit-and-hope for Netflix binge watchers, it deserves so much more than that. The big screen would have done wonders for the vibrant visuals and aided to expand the narrative world. Garland’s direction is fantastic, the script is solid and the score, especially in the final act, is perfectly jarring. It lacked some of the high-stakes tension of Ex Machina, but it’s a great follow up from Garland.

Our big screen loss is Netflix online gain – and it’s a real asset, their smartest and most provocative release to date. 7.5/10