Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson
Run Time: 1 hour 55 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
There are certain combinations of director and actor that you can't ignore. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. And with only Ex Machina as evidence, I'd already say Alex Garland and Oscar Isaac were one of those pairs. Of course, sometimes you get Edward Scissorhands and sometimes you get Dark Shadows, so there's always a risk there, but I wasn't not gonna go see Annihilation.
Gimme all the Oscar you've got, the shirtlesser the better.
OK, so the plot... The plot. It sure is a plot. I think. Lena (Natalie Portman) is a military veteran biologist who is now a professor at Johns Hopkins, whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been MIA on a military operation for a year. When he shows up randomly one evening in a near-catatonic state before falling terribly ill and internally bleeding all over her damn carpet, she realizes that his mission may not have been a particularly routine one.
She and Kane are taken to a military outpost in a national park that is the site of a mysterious phenomenon called the Shimmer, a zone surrounded by light that keeps expanding. Everyone who has been sent into this zone has never returned... except Kane. An all-female science expedition is about to make their way into this zone, led by the sketchy psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and made up of the brash Chicago paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), shy physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), and nihilistic geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny). Lena asks to be able to lend her skills to the group and just maybe figure out what happened to her husband. When they enter the Shimmer, they discover an environment where the laws of physics don't apply, and mutated beasts roam the gorgeous, forbidding swamp. As they make their way to the lighthouse at the center, what they encounter will rattle them to their very DNA.
They also touch a lot of things without gloves, which is the most disturbing part of the movie for yours truly.
Annihilation is a very cerebral film, with a lot of different interpretations as to what's actually going on and what it might mean. This isn't dissimilar from Ex Machina, necessarily, but the way it goes about it is much more in-your-face arthousey. That's not meant as a detraction, but the ambitions of the movie to be a beautiful metaphor for a cavalcade of elements of the human condition are a little misguided, because for a lot of the time the movie just isn't that.
Honestly, the earliest comparison that comes to mind is The Cloverfield Paradox, with all the muddled popcorn movie baggage that comes along with that. With one dropped line in the beginning, they provide a decidedly liberal umbrella explanation for a whole cavalcade of random sci-fi bullshit, very little of which actively corresponds to any of the major thematic interpretations going on here. Annihilation wants to have its cake and analyze it too, but there's a lot of sound and fury in the first half of the film that just doesn't connect at the end of the day.
But wow, what a gorgeous film it is. At least once every five minutes comes a shot that you could frame and hang up in your house, displaying the vast grandeur of the sci-fi universe it has created with all the awe-inspiring scale that it deserves. And the design of the plants and creatures in the Shimmer is excruciatingly detailed, drawing beauty from the grotesque and presenting sight after sight of nature turned on its head in appealing yet subtly unsettling ways. If this was just a travelogue promoting some semi-terrestrial safari, it would be a perfect movie.
But there do happen to be humans in this movie and they are going through the motions of a plot, so there we are. The cast is mostly strong, but oddly the off notes come from the places you'd least expect them. Oscar Isaac, for one, isn't given a terribly prominent role, but is imprisoned inside a grating accent that just won't let him flourish, so it's a blessing that he's not onscreen that often. And Natalie Portman herself is probably being directed to be as bland as she is, but the ticking biological clock that is meant to generate suspense in the second half of the film is not in any way reflected by her physicality, and it falls entirely flat. And then there's the incomparable Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is making an incredibly strange series of choices that provide a restrained, keening performance that I'm not entirely convinced I like.
Gina Rodriguez, who has heretofore been known primarily for comedy, is the obvious standout here. She leaps from providing levity to ratcheting up the tension without making any huge, obvious shifts, letting a multitude of tones inhabit her character in a seamless, authentic manner.
And if the performers aren't drawing you in, neither is the plot. Annihilation does generate a level of interest in its spooky mayhem for a while, as you're playing catch-up with what the hell is happening here in the Shimmer. But after more and more scenes of characters clubbing you over the head with dialogue that loudly announces "WE'RE GOING TO DISCUSS THE THEME OF THE MOVIE NOW!" with the obvious handicap that the more arthousey elements are grafted onto a basic sci-fi slasher structure, it just fails to impress on a structural level.
Don't get me wrong, when Annihilation gets into its third act, it leans in hard on those elements and finally cuts itself loose from anything resembling commercial entertainment. You can't watch the closing twenty minutes in any state other than transfixed rapture as it blends the ever-beautiful cinematography with the evocative motion of ballet to create something marvelous and cinematic, the likes of which haven't been seen since 2001: A Space Odyssey or maybe 2014's Under the Skin.
Plus there is one moment with a bear that's flat-out the most terrifying scene of the year, I'm calling it now. So yeah, it's overall a win, but there's so much going wrong here it's more of a testament to how strong the movie is as a visual piece of craft more than an act of storytelling.
TL;DR: Annihilation is a beautifully achieved work of cerebral sci-fi, but it might not be quite as deep as it thinks it is.
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