On the surface, there’s a lot you’d expect to like in Annihilation. It was written for the screen and directed by Alex Garland, the visionary behind Ex Machina, and adapted from a book by Jeff VanderMeer. It’s loaded with a stellar cast, including Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, and Oscar Isaac. And it’s visually impressive, in an eerily subtle way that pushes most of its dazzling effects into the background.
And yet, it turns out that the whole is less than the sum of its parts, and Annihilation ends up collapsing on its own vague sense of self-importance.
That’s not to say that the movie’s outright bad, necessarily. Aside from all the reasons listed above, it’s refreshing to see a studio willing to take a chance on a daringly original project that’s not only hard to compare to another film. It also has a kind of raw, visceral approach to storytelling — even when its non-linear structure ends up robbing the film itself of some its own tension.
The best example of this comes at the beginning, with Lena (Portman), being interrogated by Lomax (Benedict Wong), while he’s wearing a hazmat suit. So, right away we know who makes it — and who doesn’t — in a film that’s still got about two hours of runtime to go.
It’s a pretty disappointing start for a genre mashup that’s as much survival horror as it is a mind-bending sci-fi.
Speaking of the sci-fi angle, the plot revolves around an area near an unnamed coast that’s been dubbed ‘the shimmer.’ Since it appeared three years earlier, the military has sent in drones, animals (?), and squads of troops, never to hear from any of them again. It’s also expanding, and no one has any clue what’s caused it, what it wants, or what’s going on inside it.
Lena gets involved in this whole predicament when her husband, Kane (Isaac), suddenly appears inside her house a year after he vanished. He’s strangely vague when Lena asks him where he’s been. Not necessarily guarded, but more like he doesn’t know the answers, much less why she’s even asking these questions.
Then, after he realizes he’s bleeding internally, they’re en route to the hospital. That is, until their ambulance is ran off the road by a squad of black SUVs who take Kane and Lena back to their secret headquarters.
You see where this is going, right? Lena, desperate to know what happened to her husband, volunteers to go with a squad of scientists (and one paramedic, for some reason) into the shimmer to figure out what’s happening.
In almost no time, strange things start happening. I mean that literally. Their first lucid awareness of being inside the shimmer happens roughly after four days, based on the amount of rations they’ve consumed. They have no recollection of setting up camp, and none of their electronic communications work, nor does their compass.
They keep foraging ahead, keep encountering unexplainable phenomenon, and they’re killed off in reverse-billing order.
Though perhaps the most confusing aspect of Annihilation is how much time it spends on Lena’s character, giving her an entire side plot that adds nothing to the story, which ends up robbing the four supporting characters from desperately needed backstories that go beyond their job titles.
There is one scene early on where we get just a hint of their motivations, and like Lena, they all have their personal reasons entering. However, the other four all share a disturbing commonality that hovers loosely around their respective self-destructive nihilism. It’s an intriguing setup that gets almost no real payoff, as the film decides to keep almost 100% of its focus on Lena. Who’s not an uninteresting character, she’s just not any more interesting than the others who are on the same journey with her.
Still, I didn’t walk away disliking the movie, and not just because its deserves accolades for managing to weave originality into a studio’s big-budget slate. And again, Garland proves to be a true auteur behind the camera, skillfully framing his shots with a meticulous skill, and its portrayal of what things look like inside the shimmer is also impressive.
But when taken as a whole, it’s all the more confusing why so much of the film failed to really come together.
Annihilation is now playing in theaters everywhere.