Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong
Director: Alex Garland
Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Writer-director Alex Garland's 2015 sci-fi drama Ex Machina, about the murky intersection of human ego and A.I., showed promise. A modestly budgeted genre picture raising philosophical ideas by tethering it to emotional pathology, the film only spiraled into the kind of laughable nonsense that plagues so many science fiction stories during the final act. The journey, as it were, was more rewarding than the destination. With his more ambitious followup, Annihilation, Garland has fashioned something where both the journey and destination are of little consequence. There's grand imagery here, but little imagination. Concessions to "strong female characters", but no relatable human beings. Potentially provocative ideas, but zero intellectual curiosity. It's a film that feels engineered to be a technical object; all shiny surfaces and blaring synth soundscapes without an emotional anchor.
During the opening moments, a beam from outer space streaks across the horizon, crashing into a lighthouse on the shore of a nature preserve. Enter Lena (Natalie Portman), a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine professor and former Army veteran, who is still grieving the loss of her military husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac). When he shows up out of nowhere one day, Lena is overwhelmed with joy until she realizes that this man is not who he seems. Staring off blankly and talking in a clipped monotone, Kane is elusive regarding his whereabouts over the past year. He eventually collapses, blood spurting from his mouth, before being taken captive by masked government agents en route to the hospital. Lena is given a shot, falls unconscious, and later wakes up inside a remote facility. A psychiatrist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), explains to her that Kane's former mission was to enter the mysterious zone known as "The Shimmer" near the lighthouse, and that he was the only known survivor.
From here, Annihilation turns into a mission movie, where Lena joins up with Ventress and three other scientist officers, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and Cass (Tuva Novotny) in order to travel into the heart of the Shimmer and document their findings. Garland's aesthetic here is to view the women's journey as a passive observer; going for the detached, Kubrickian angle so many modern filmmakers have adopted in lieu of emotional engagement or psychological inquisitiveness. What that means is that even if the notion of a female-led sci-fi hybrid is welcome, Garland shows very little interest in these women as actual people. Each character here is given a single trait defining them in terms of male ideas regarding femininity. So we get one woman who cuts herself, one that lost a daughter, one that has an incurable disease, and so forth. Even Lena is a cliché; headstrong, good with guns, and pining for her husband. Portman is a commanding presence, but she's given very little wriggle room in terms of characterization and her flashback scenes with Isaac, filmed in a warm sepia-tinged glow, are rather embarrassing stabs at development.
As the team plunges deeper into the forest, Annihilation amps up the hallucinatory atmosphere; with The Shimmer refracting genetic material by merging different life-forms together. There are attacks by crocodile, a ravenous bear-like creature, and even violence within the unit, as members gradually begin losing their grip on reality. Characters get picked off one by one, but sadly, there's very little in the way of emotional engagement since Garland shows absolutely no interest in the inner lives of his characters.
Meanwhile, the film maintains a washed-out green screen visual palette; which is how a lot of modern dystopian films look these days. Overlit, with phony-looking backdrops mixed with real environments, the world of Annihilation never feels truly immersive, and the film's self-serious tone doesn't help matters. Even when things go into delightfully trippy territory near the climax, there's no kink or playfulness to the film's inherent silliness. Instead, Garland simply doubles down on the mushroom-trip visuals and Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow's throbbing electronic score. Terms like "mind-bending" will likely be lobbied at the film's legitimately weird final moments, but there's really nothing substantive going on here that would merge the visual splendor with something emotionally or intellectually probing.
Annihilation is based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, so it's reasonable to assume some of the flaws here rest with the source material, but there doesn't necessarily need to be nuanced character dynamics or psychological insight for a genre film to work on its own terms. However, since Garland isn't interested in action or horror (except for one gruesome scene of violence), the genre trappings feel more cosmetic than integral. Instead, he's aiming for the avant-science fiction of something like Jonathan Glazer's brilliantly unnerving Under the Skin. Whereas that film was mysteriously alluring, Annihilation is mostly a snooze, save for a few memorable images of cosmic weirdness, leaving one to wonder; why venture deep within The Shimmer when the only things there are crocs, fauna, and forced ponderousness?