Movie Review: Annihilation
By Matthew Huntley
March 13, 2018
“Annihilation” is an engaging mix of big ideas, heavy atmosphere and raw tension, but it eventually only yields a moderate payoff. It poses more questions than answers, a strategy that works in its favor because it holds our attention and keeps us guessing, and its visual and audio design are so sharp and penetrating they make the film a thoroughly immersive experience.
But while these qualities certainly make “Annihilation” good and absolutely worth seeing, I can't help but think it could have been better. What holds it back from greatness is that it eventually resorts to traditional sci-fi horror devices just when it should have continued to expound its science and ideas. It exchanges these more substantive traits for conventional action and special effects, and while some of its more sensational moments are arguably effective, on the whole, they feel too familiar, and the film, in turn, feels too complacent.
Still, that’s to say it’s without virtues. In fact, for most of its run, “Annihilation” is spellbinding, eerie and disturbing, all in good ways. Director Alex Garland, who made an impressive debut with 2014's “Ex Machina,” once again shows he's in complete control of his resources and a rising master of mood, pacing, and tightly wound suspense. He wants the audience to be on edge and feel uncomfortable. He and his editor, Barney Pilling, slowly release the film's built-up tension so there's a constant feeling of dread and uneasiness in the air. Just like “Ex Machina” did, “Annihilation” makes us feel exposed and vulnerable when it comes to things we don't understand. It also argues we should counteract our inclinations to destroy things that can't be explained.
Based on the first novel of James VanderMeer's “Southern Reach Trilogy,” the film opens with a meteor striking (but not destroying) a lighthouse on an unknown coast. The impact results in the generation of a force field of sorts that starts to slowly expand and consume the land around it. The outside walls of this “shimmer,” as it's called, resemble water dripping down a windshield during a carwash mixed with the colors of the Northern Lights. The shimmer is both threatening and beautiful, and it has the authorities baffled. “There are many theories, but few facts.”
Cut to a quiet, quarantined room, where Lena (Natalie Portman), a cellular biologist, is being interrogated by a man in a hazmat suit. Lena has recently returned from the latest expedition to venture into the shimmer in order to gather data about it and attempt to conclude how it affects humans. She's the only survivor from her original team of five and we soon learn, in flashback, this was also the case for Lena's husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), whose entire army unit stepped into the shimmer but Kane was the only one to step out. He'd been gone a year and, not hearing from him this whole time or knowing where he was sent, Lena presumed him dead. Then one day Kane wanders back home, confused and disoriented, not to mention extremely ill.
On their way to the hospital after Kane collapses, he and Lena are captured by security officials and brought to Area X, the government facility set up outside the shimmer. Here, the abrasive and somewhat suspicious Dr. Vintress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist, asks Lena questions about her husband, hoping to gain some insight into why he survived but his fellow soldiers perished. Lena doesn't have any answers, although she believes she can help treat her husband by going into the shimmer with Vintress and examining its molecular structure.
They join a research team that includes the tough and tomboyish Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), an EMT; the quiet and reserved Radek (Tessa Thompson), a physicist; and the compassionate Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), an anthropologist. We learn these women volunteered for this mission because they consider themselves “damaged goods” and are hoping their uncovering the truths about the shimmer will provide some sort of absolution.
But the shimmer provides anything but comfort. Soon after they step in, tension and paranoia begin to rise as the group's communication devices suddenly stop working; they all lose their sense of time and place, such as being unable to remember simple things like when they set up camp or what they ate for breakfast; and they encounter disturbing, hybridized forms of plants and animals, the likes of which I'll not reveal because the explanation of such phenomena plays into the film's overall effort to unnerve us. They also come across troubling evidence of what happened to the previous groups. What we see and learn (and don't learn) about the shimmer keeps us fixated on the screen as the women make their way to the lighthouse.
The ideas suggested by “Annihilation” are so powerful and intriguing that I wish the movie was called something else and instead of clinging to its themes of violence and destruction, it spent more time discussing the group’s theories and findings about what was happening to them and the surrounding plant and animal life. What they talk about and speculate is inherently interesting, especially Josie's hypothesis regarding the mixing of human and plant DNA. But the film cuts these moments short in order to make way for a violent, spectacular showdown, which, although it's done well, felt overly familiar and plagiarized from other sci-fi adventures (“2001: A Space Odyssey” came to mind).
Nevertheless, despite its narrative shortcomings, there's a lot to admire about “Annihilation.” Its tone, atmosphere and pacing engulf us right from the start and never let go. Even though in hindsight we wish the film had continued to challenge us intellectually instead of merely satiating us visually with action and special effects, we're never bored. In fact, this first installment is so memorable and promising that hopefully the studio will adapt VanderMeer's other novels. Maybe by then the filmmakers won’t settle on simply dazzling us with spectacle, but really flush out the science and substance of the story, because it's clearly got some.