Annihilation ★★★★

There is a lot going on in this film, as there so often is in the work of Alex Garland. He’s an obvious lover of science fiction, who whether when simply acting as scribe, or when gifted with directorial duties too, tries to work all kinds of themes and ideas into his work. His projects don’t always succeed in their entirety, they often have a messy quality, feel less than focused, and they almost always seem to let the majority of people down in the final act.

In Annihilation, his follow up to his far more talky directorial debut Ex Machina, Garland has kept the exposition to a relative minimum. It’s a film told almost entirely in flashback, and then further flashbacks, with the earliest and latest of these timelines existing in large part to serve as informers of the main body of the storyline which takes place in the middle. Thankfully for the most part said exposition is woven naturally into proceedings, there’s no clunkiness about it, and you never really (much) feel like you’re being clubbed over the head by the movie in its attempt to get a point across.

As far as said structure goes, it’s never as convoluted as it might sound. Garland flits back and forth from one timeline to the other without any kind of signposting, but it’s never needed, with the actions and settings of each sequence distinct enough to stand out on their own. It is said non linear, braid like intertwining of its trio of story strands that proves the trick that keeps the movies aforementioned lack of reliance on unnatural exposition to a minimum. It’s a smart approach by Garland as writer, maybe the most in tune with the medium that he’s ever been on that front.

As for what it all means, I think that Garland is smart enough to be brief enough in his musings any time that the science, a preoccupation with cells, crops up in the conversation, he never lingers on those moments too long for the movie to become one that forces you into contemplating what it all means, but revisits it enough that if you should so choose to wander down that road there is enough there to point you in the direction he intends. Then at the conclusion in what you could class as its epilogue the movie does get a little bit more on the nose in going about its business, Garland seemingly unable to avoid unmasking the work just a little bit, reaction confused with aggression, change with destruction, the term “I don’t know” put to better use than any movie has probably ever put it to use.

As for his cast, there’s nothing especially taxing for any of them to do here. Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez both play against whatever types they have established for themselves in their to date short careers, you might wonder why Jennifer Jason Leigh signed on to play such a role, then you get to the end, and anyone familiar with her work will be likely to have an “Oh, okay” moment. Natalie Portman is fine, Oscar Isaac is fine, Benedict Wong has such a great voice, Tuva Novotny builds on her soulful work in Borg McEnroe with more graceful stuff here, and unsung hero of Ex Machina Sonoya Mizuno reteams with Garland for more eerie work that will surely see her get no credit once more.

Ultimately none of them is doing the heavy lifting here, as with practically everything that Garland’s name has been attached to, the big names are involved, but they’re generally secondary to the worlds he has dropped them into the middle of. Annihilation is a hell of a confident step forward for him as director that maybe more impressively sees him continuing to grow as a writer (it’s probably less fascinating a feature than Ex Machina was, but more assured a movie, the work of a more mature filmmaker). The highlight of the whole thing, the place where both sides meet in the middle coming in the spectacular finale - driven by the tremendous music of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury (what a score this is, eclectic and impactful) - where at least a good 10 minutes must go by without anything but largely incidental dialogue aiding the movie in building to its grand crescendo. The man famous for blowing his final acts (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, even Ex Machina wasn’t spared) here elevates his movie to another level when he gets to that point. Watch and ponder, or watch and be thrilled, the choice is left entirely up to you.