Published on February 23rd, 2018 | by Dan Nicholls0
Alex Garland (Ex Machina) is back with Annihilation, based on the book by Jeff VanderMeer. It has issues, but it work more than it doesn’t.
Leaning hard into its heady ideas and cosmic aspirations, the new film Annihilation might look like Predator by way of G.I. Jane but it’s really far more subtle and introspective than many genre spectacles of its ilk. Natalie Portman stars as a woman whose husband (played by the indelible Oscar Isaac) returns after a year in secretive government military service with a blank face and a scrambled brain. It’s like some Body Snatchers have invaded him – the film itself strives for some foreign 2001 heights but gets stuck in an earthly realm of horrors. Indeed, Annihilation is quite scary at times. It’s fascinating more than it isn’t. But it’s downright unfulfilling in a way that leaves you craving something else to scratch your science-fiction itch.
After a meteor strikes through a lighthouse and lands on American soil, an extra-terrestrial force field begins to emanate and grow outwards, expanding at an exponential rate. Dozens of crews have been sent into this “Shimmer” but only one person has returned alive over the course of three years. Kane (the aforementioned Isaac) comes out to pull his estranged partner Lena (Portman) back in. What lies beyond its soap-bubble exterior includes creatures both fascinating and terrifying, and challenges steeper than anyone could have imagined.
The atmospherics of Annihilation are undeniably intoxicating. Spitting back the colors of the rainbows as if it were encased in a giant soap bubble, “The Shimmer” is mystifying and hypnotizing all at once. In fact, the film’s mise-en-scene as a whole creates a unified and immersive environment that at once seems familiar and alien. It’s a wonder to behold even when of its VFX creations come out lacking and its emotional hook remains elusive.
It’s tough to figure out what Annihilation wants to say, though its themes run plenty and deep. Our suicide squad of intellectuals and jarheads includes recovering alcoholic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), secretive psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and suicidal tech nerd Josie (Tessa Thompson, the standout here just as she was in Thor: Ragnarok). They all have their demons to battle and their self-destructive tendencies to bear with, but none of them are fleshed out enough to make their development utterly compelling.
The deeper our intrepid explorers trek into The Shimmer the more dangerous and unpredictable the dangers become. Lena may appear as little more than a woman attempting to find an answer for what happened to her husband, but she has secrets of her own that she’s looking to answer in this alien biodome. And she isn’t going out without a fight.
Adapting from a novel by Jeff VanderMeer (the first in a trilogy), writer-director Alex Garland has an eye for the fantastical questions that mankind dares not to ask and a cynic’s skepticism that keeps his storytelling grounded. Garland is previously known as a screenwriter and author, with credits in one form or another ranging from 28 Days Later to The Beach (both Danny Boyle-directed films). Oscar-nominated for his debut as a solo screenwriter-director with Ex Machina, Garland is just as confident here as he’s been in any of his works. The man’s got grand ambitions, but his trajectory gets derailed to an unfortunate degree along the way in Annihilation.
Its technical merits notwithstanding, Annihilation still leaves a fair bit to be desired that will hold it back from mainstream embracement. As with Ex Machina we know more or less exactly what’s going on in every scene; the plot of this film is not difficult to follow at all. What’s murkier is the subtext underneath. For every unexpected sci-fi innovation there’s almost another layer full of ellipses that doesn’t know where it’s going or what it’s trying to say. While Garland’s directorial debut left big questions about mankind’s existence, Annihilation just leaves questions about what it’s all supposed to mean.
The film that kept popping up in my head while watching Annihilation was the Nicolas Cage (shocking) box office hit Knowing directed by Alex Proyas. Spoilers shall be avoided, but needless to say some parallels could be drawn between them both. And yet both films pale in comparison to Proyas’ unsung masterpiece, 1998’s Dark City. For sci-fi/horror done right, you can scarcely do better than that noir-tinged piece of genre vibranium. It’s so good you can’t scratch it even if you tried, whereas Annihilation stands on questionable ground from the onset.
Its flaws are glaring but Annihilation is still more successful than not. It’s a film that’s bound to reap dividends upon future viewings but isn’t guaranteed to win you over on first glance. In that regard, it’s not going to be a film for casual audiences or weekend warriors. The faithful and the committed, however, are going to plenty to chew on even if immediate satisfaction eludes grasp on initial viewing. Its cult is inevitable and Annihilation will be talked about for some time to come yet.