As the February 23 release date for the sci-fi thriller Annihilation has drawn closer, film critics have speculated about its quality: is it being released in the “dump month” of February, right after the box office hit Black Panther, because it’s bad? Or because it’s a masterpiece that’s too intellectual to appeal to the masses?
Well, Annihilation isn’t quite a masterpiece, but it’s definitely an ambitious, enjoyable movie — and a creative story that we haven’t seen before. Loosely based on the novel of the same title by Jeff VanderMeer and directed by sci-fi pro Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Never Let Me Go), Annihilation follows a soldier-turned-biology professor named Lena (Natalie Portman) whose soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) suddenly reappears in her home after being missing and presumed dead for a year — with no memory of where he was or what he was doing. When Kane suddenly begins coughing up blood, soldiers kidnap him and Lena en route to the hospital and bring them to a mysterious building outside “Area X” — a wilderness surrounded by a mysterious “Shimmer,” into which many teams of soldiers have disappeared. Kane is the first person to come back from the Shimmer, and nobody knows how he did it. Worse: “Area X” is expanding, and no one knows how to stop it.
With Kane unconscious, Lena decides to do something other than wait around for him to wake up. She joins a team of scientists going into the Shimmer. The scientists are all women, which is treated as no big deal. Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a terse, detached psychologist who is the leader of the group. Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) is an outgoing, tough-talking medic (and yes, you read that undercut right: she’s into women). Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) is a soft-spoken, brilliant physicist and the emotional center of the group. Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) is an anthropologist and the most observant of the women — she’s the one who tells Lena that each member of the group decided to go into the Shimmer because none of them feel like they have much left to live for.
Garland tells the story nonlinearly. We see three timelines — Lena being interrogated by a scientist (Benedict Wong) after somehow escaping the Shimmer; Lena and the team of scientists entering the Shimmer, four months earlier; and, a year before that, Lena and Kane saying goodbye before Kane embarks on his own mission.
The world Garland has created inside the Shimmer is visually stunning, intriguingly strange, and often terrifying — as Lena soon realizes and explains to her team and the viewers, inside the Shimmer, every organisms scells mutate. That means some beautiful sights — vines covered in a variety of multicolored flowers; tiny white deer with twigs for antlers — and some terrifying monsters that threaten the group’s lives. But the monsters aren’t all external, and as the scientists go further into the Shimmer, they discover disturbing messages left for them by Kane and his team.
Some of Garland’s sci-fi creatures are scarier and more fascinating than others, but the film is definitely a thriller — I grabbed my face a little too hard at one of the jump scares and have a small scratch below my eye now. I admire how ambitious and creative the film is, but the real strength is the cast. It’s refreshing to see an action thriller led by five women — I can’t think of a single one I’ve seen before — especially when the women play complex and very different characters. Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson especially stand out, and though they get a decent amount of screentime, I wanted even more. It's also refreshing to see Oscar Isaac play a “wife”-type character — he’s unconscious for most of the movie, his mysterious illness drives Lena’s action, and he’s primarily seen shirtless and in flashbacks.
Garland has been criticized for casting Portman in the lead role, because in the second book of Jeff VanderMeer’s trilogy, her character is described as being of Asian descent (none of the characters' races are mentioned in the first book). In a recent interview with Yahoo, Portland said that she wasn't aware of her character's race in the books and has not read the second book; she also agreed that we need more roles for people of color in Hollywood. In other interviews, Garland has said he hasn’t read the other books in the trilogy, either — though the books had been released by the time production began, so you’d think that someone could have read them and filled him in. The supporting cast primarily consists of people of color — Thompson, Rodriguez, Isaac, and Wong, as well as David Gyasi as a hot professor and Lena’s colleague. But though Portman’s performance is a good one, I can’t blame anyone for wishing an Asian American actress had been cast as the lead — there are many who would have been excellent in the role.
top photo: Annihilation
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Erika W. Smith is BUST's digital editorial director. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @erikawynn and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.