Annihilation is another solid entry in the dark, cerebral sci-fi genre for director Alex Garland, though compared to his debut (Ex Machina) it is decidedly less consistent. The film’s somber atmosphere and otherworldly visuals are its major strengths. There are some truly striking and memorable images in this film that manage to be alien, haunting, and disarmingly beautiful, often all at the same time. The final act of the film is certainly its centerpiece and is where its most powerful and piercing images reside. These final 20 minutes are where the film reaches its full potential, offering up a nearly wordless denouement that is hypnotic, visually spectacular, and unsettlingly bizarre. It’s certainly worth seeing just for this sequence.
What comes before the finale is more of a mixed bag. I get the sense that the core goal for this film was to capture that warped, uncanny quality of like-minded classic sci-fi films like Tarkovsky’s Stalker while exploring the nature of identity and other philosophical and psychological themes. It is at its best in its most uncompromising and avant-garde moments that dive head-first into achieving that goal. However, there are a considerable number of sequences in the film that feel more traditional and comparatively uninspired, more along the lines of what you would see in a less heady and ambitious sci-fi thriller. Given that Garland was picked up by a major studio (Paramount) for this release based on the success of Ex Machina, which was a much smaller and more independent production, I have to wonder if these were concessions made to the studio to make the film more accessible to a wide audience.
On further investigation, there is some evidence to support this idea as Paramount reportedly nearly forced Garland to significantly alter the finale due to poor test screenings, fearing the film was “too intellectual” and would not play well to a wide audience. Ultimately, Garland fought and won the battle to keep the film unaltered, though the result was that Paramount backed out on giving it an international theatrical release, shifting the rights to Netflix instead for regions outside of the U.S., Canada, and China. This kind of pressure from major studios is so often what suffocates the artistic integrity of directors and, although Garland succeeded in keeping the film unaltered for a hefty price, it’s possible that this pressure influenced the film and contributed to the clash between the more uncompromising elements and the somewhat mundane, typical thriller sequences.
Still, the film at large succeeds as a worthy addition to the genre even if it doesn’t quite reach the artistry of a film like Under the Skin (a much more uncompromising modern sci-fi classic that I highly recommend if you enjoyed this). Although I didn’t love the whole film, I wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of the genre based on the strength of its visuals and its fantastic final act. It certainly further establishes Garland as a talent to watch and I’m excited for his future output, especially if he’s able to work with a studio that is willing to trust him with full creative control.
8 out of 10 stars