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Review: “Annihilation” ingeniously mutates the traditional sci-fi genre

“Annihilation” will stimulate your right brain and frustrate your left brain. It’s a simultaneously beautiful and horrifying visual spectacle that thrills in the moment but perplexes once you try to analyze and dissect its meaning.

The film stars Natalie Portman as Lena, a biologist who volunteers for a dangerous expedition into an enigmatic entity called Area X in order to find a cure for her sick, comatose husband (Oscar Isaac). The team consists of four other women: a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), a geologist (Tuva Novotny) and a physicist (Tessa Thompson).

Once inside Area X — the scientists call it “The Shimmer” — the rules of nature do not apply. This world is filled with genetically mutated flora and fauna that appear to originate from our world, but with slight and not-so-slight differences. Deer with lilac plants sprouting off of their antlers; alligators with rows of serrated shark teeth; giant bears with grotesque, flesh-less snouts.

The story is told non-linearly, beginning with Lena in quarantine as she is debriefed about her months of exploring and studying Area X. From there, we jump around several times from her expedition to her previous home life with her husband then back to her debriefing again.

While the eschewment of traditional narrative structure is subversive in itself, what’s even more radical about “Annihilation” is its gender politics. Seeing women scientists actually represented on-screen is exciting, especially considering they’ve been historically erased from the field. The film also spectacularly fails the Reverse Bechdel Test (two men never speak to each other throughout the whole film), and Isaac’s character serves as a mere prop for Portman’s character’s development.

“Annihilation” is based on Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel of the same name, but that’s about where the similarities end. Director Alex Garland opted not to re-read the book, but to adapt it as a sort of dream-like version of it instead. While the characters in the novel, aside from the biologist protagonist, lack complexities and are simply referred to by their profession (the psychologist, the surveyor, etc.), the characters of the film have names and backstories.

The book’s intentionally vague descriptions of Area X also make it fertile ground for filmmakers to craft their own rich, innovative cinematics. Garland’s films heavily incorporate stunning visuals (his 2015 directorial debut “Ex Machina” beat out “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” for the Best Visual Effects Academy Award) and “Annihilation” is no exception. Its creative effects range from celestial, ethereal entities to revolting body horror.

Garland is also starting to become known for taking on excessively cerebral material. While “Ex Machina” explored the relationship between humans and technology, “Annihilation” explores the relationship between humans and… well, it’s hard to say, really. Nature? Genetics? The unknown? In a way, the film itself represents Area X and we the audience are the team of scientists, desperately trying to reason with something that’s incapable of reason.

In fact, Garland’s refusal to serve viewers a simple, easy-to-follow story led to poorly-received test screenings, causing Paramount to lose faith in the film, believing it to be “too intellectual” for general audiences. So the studio struck a deal with Netflix Paramount distributed it to theaters in the U.S., Canada and China on February 23, and Netflix will release it online internationally on March 12.

Sadly, this means that international audiences won’t be able to experience the ultimate North American and Chinese privilege of viewing “Annihilation” in all its glimmering glory on the big screen. Make sure to take full advantage of this opportunity and see it in theaters, but be prepared to think… and scream.

“Annihilation” is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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Mia Vicino

Mia Vicino