Alex Garland adapts Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy for Netflix in this female-led, surreal and ultimately shrug-worthy sci-fi thriller.

It’s rare that action films contain women in roles playing anything other than the damsel in distress. It’s more frequent today than ten years ago, but the backlash against the all-female remakes of Ghostbusters and Ocean’s Eleven make it pretty clear that some men still don’t seem to think there’s a place for women in anything but a rom-com or a chick-flick (that’s no excuse for car crash that was the Ghostbusters reboot). It’s refreshing then to see Alex Garland (Ex Machina, 28 Days Later) turning to a team of strong, intelligent women for his latest film outing, Annihilation. 

Straight to Netflix, with a limited release in the USA, the film follows Lena (Natalie Portman) as she sets out to find out the truth about the mission that returned her husband (Oscar Isaac) a different man. If you ignore the unnecessary and underdeveloped affair backstory, that’s sort of a good enough reason to volunteer to almost certainly die. In this, she is accompanied by Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a team of scientists including Josie (Tessa Thompson), Anya (Gina Rodriguez) and Tuva Novotny (Cass) on what turns out to be highly likely a suicide mission.

Natalie Portman Annihilation Alex Garland Netflix

Natalie Portman plays Lena in Annihilation. © 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

The explorers are set to enter what is only known as ‘the shimmer’, a wall of what looks like bubble-blowing liquid that leads into a dark forest. On the other side, the world is same, same…but different.

There’s a couple of problems with the world created on the other side of the shimmer. Firstly, it’s almost as if Paramount scrimped on the budget, since the ‘mutations’ look rather more like paper mache models cooked up in a primary school classroom, and the giant, CGI bear is so unrealistic as to render what should have been a deeply disturbing scene (the bear screams with the voice of its last victim, one of the team), ultimately ineffectual.

Secondly, that only some of the living organisms mutate, and others don’t, the whole premise that the shimmer ‘refracts’ everything inside it as cells split is untenable. It’s a damn good thing Lena decided to volunteer herself for the mission to work that out, without her the team would have been pretty clueless since none of the rest of them seem to add anything beyond fodder for alien beasts to munch on.

It’s rather a shame that the ultimate victory over the alien entity is achieved by way of a grenade. It would seem that despite the alien shimmer’s apparent ability to cause the deaths of several troops, a little bit of fire sends it up in smoke. It’s a wonder none of the previous US military soldiers tried that method.

Alex Garland Netflix Annihilation Natalie Portman

Tuva Novotny as Cass Sheppard, Gina Rodriguez as Anya, Tessa Thompson as Josie and Natalie Portman as Lena in Annihilation © 2018 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Annihilation is rather a strange mix of genres. It’s as if it’s channeling Arrival, but lands somewhere off kilter but not too distant from a budget version of Avatar. The scene in which Lena dances with her alien doppleganger in order to save her own skin as it mirrors her every move is striking, but it’s pre-empted by a bizarre scene which haemorrhaged most of the budget in which Dr Ventress explodes into a cacophony of light for an unexplained reason. The aftermath includes a trippy ball of wavy lines that swim in circles as they hover in the air, and stare Lena directly in the face. There’s no real explanation for what the entity is, and the reverse is perhaps the easy way out that most sci-fi films choose to allow for a clean ending, but here it feels incomplete.

Despite the film’s pitfalls, it’s still a thoroughly engaging sci-fi adventure into the unknown. At times revoltingly gory (see Kane cutting open the stomach of a fellow soldier and a bear ripping another’s face off), there’s something uniquely beautiful about Annihilation. With a wistfully entrancing soundtrack from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow that subverts its string orchestra sound into something quite menacing, it reflects on the slow process of self destruction all humans succumb to, and manages to slot in a twist that will leave the catastrophists among us with a warm, fuzzy feeling in our cold, empty hearts.

★★★☆☆

Annihilation is now streaming on Netflix.