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CINEMASCOPE: THE SHIMMER DAZZLES

March 04, 2018

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Usually, I watch a film after seeing a couple of trailers at the very least, but with Annihilation I went into the theatre like a babe in the woods; and it made the experience all the more enthralling. This mesmerising dreamlike sci-fi horror film (with a special emphasis on the horror) so consistently surprises you with the macabre in unexpected ways that I would advise you to avoid set-piece related spoilers on the Internet until you see it.

If I were to describe the viewing experience of Annihilation in one word I’d go with ‘nightmare’. Not the wake-up-screaming type of nightmare, but the cooking-on-medium-flame variety. Think about how you feel disoriented, helpless and unsettled during a bad dream. Annihilation leaves you in this state and more as its strange events somehow make every bit of sense in the moment, much like a nightmare.

Without giving too much away, the premise is as follows: A mysterious fiery object from outer space hits a lighthouse, encompassing it in what could be best described as an energy shield. Referred to as “the shimmer” or “Area X” in the film, this begins to grow bit-by-bit, gradually covering more and more land. No living being that enters it is, mysteriously enough, heard from again. Years go by and all the military teams sent into the shimmer disappear, until one missing soldier, Kane (Oscar Isaac), appears suddenly in front of his wife Lena (Natalie Portman) in a dazed and hurt state at their house. Lena, who believed her husband was dead and is herself a brilliant biologist and ex-soldier, is now compelled to join the next expedition into the shimmer.

What’s different about this team is that they are all women, and save for Lena, aren’t soldiers. There is Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the leader and a seemingly calculating psychologist with a darkness to her; Cass Sheppard (Josie Radek) a surveyor and geologist with a big soul; Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson ) a physicist with a history of self-harm; and Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), a high-strung paramedic who wears her heart on her sleeve. The performances here are all convincing, which is important in a creepy film, but some of the best acting comes from the energetic Rodriguez, who fans will recognise as the star of the sitcom Jane the Virgin.

With convincing characters and mesmerising visuals, Annihilation is a slow-burning sci-fi horror film that stays with you

What really makes the characters interesting is that they are escaping some sort of trauma from life. After all, why else would they risk certain death at a chance to save humanity? One of the more controversial moments is when the film reveals early on which of the characters die. Thankfully, as the characters hadn’t been introduced yet, none of their names registered on my old-man brain, though I’d advise you to stick your fingers in your ears and shout la-la-la when the scene comes.

I am fortunate to have seen Annihilation on the big screen because the film is scheduled to go straight to Netflix in most countries. This is a pity because it is one gorgeous-looking piece of bizarre cinema with some excellent special effects.

When Annihilation began, I wondered if it would play like a rip-off of Arrival (2016). Both open with an alien arrival to planet Earth and both examine how man would respond to such an event. But that’s where the similarities end, in large part due to the nature of the aliens themselves, with both offering depictions of visitors within the realm of possibilities. Whereas Arrival offers a sense of wonderment in terms of alien technological advancements, Annihilation offers a sense of wonderment in terms of biological differences. But while Annihilation feels more fantastical, it paradoxically also comes across as more realistic.

As many scientists claim, due to vastly different ingredients in the evolutionary process, intelligent alien beings could be nothing like we’ve ever imagined. I suppose this is why Annihilation felt scarier than any ghost film of the recent past: there is no scientific weight to the existence of ghosts, but every possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms. Let’s hope that when we eventually make first contact, painful annihilation isn’t on their minds.

Rated R for violence, bloody images, coarse language and some sexuality

Published in Dawn, ICON, March 4th, 2018