I consider 2015’s EX MACHINA (click the link to read my review) to be one of the most interesting and thought-provoking science fiction films ever made, and one of the best overall films in the last decade. So it is with a heavy heart to express my great disappointment in Alex Garland’s sophomore film, ANNIHILATION, which lacks any of the excitement, intrigue or pervasive themes from his directorial debut.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist and former soldier who volunteers to enter through “the shimmer” a strange, colorful, waterfall-like wall encompassing miles of forrest to costal line. The government has somehow kept this largely growing area a secret for three years while it has inexplicably consumed all who enter. Lena enters with four other female scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson). Their objective is to reach the light house where most of the odd activity seems to have started and find out what happened to all the previous teams who never returned.
Including EX MACHINA, director Alex Garland’s previous writing credits include DREDD, SUNSHINE and 28 DAYS LATER. A strong list that had this fan eager for whatever his next project might be. Based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Garland’s screenplay for ANNIHILATION feels empty and dare I say, generic. There are moments that almost work but are usually capped with an uninspiring shock or a cheap jump scare. Even the bizarre ending fails to breathe life into something that has seeds of an interesting concept.
It’s refreshing to have an all female cast playing scientists and venturing on this dangerous expedition without that being part of the conversational topic within the film. Unfortunately, it’s the plot itself that gets muddled up in seemingly dumb character decisions and typical story-telling tropes that I can only blame on the writing. At one point they take overnight shelter in a watch tower, but the person on watch is designated at a ground level. A position that inevitably leads to the inability to effectively identify anything that comes in, a position that hinders the ability to warn the others, and a position that eventually allows one to easily get picked off as all the characters flee from the safety of the tower. Yes, the characters continually talk about how the place is messing with their mind, unable to think clearly. But that works only as a writing crutch for them to do dumb things, which also doesn’t seem to affect our lead character.
ANNIHILATION has elements of both a majestical science fiction and a gruesome monster movie. Neither of which are done very effectively. The mystery within the shimmer where the laws of nature don’t seem to apply is almost enough to sell the entire film. I was legitimately curious what was happening and where the film was going. Admittedly, I held on longer than one should expect, strictly due to my faith in the writer/director. I suspect others might do the same, giving the film the benefit of the doubt as they sell themselves on the strange beauty and horror within the “shimmer.” It’s an interesting looking film if nothing else that I can appreciate as a sci-fi fan. However, also as a sci-fi fan, ANNIHILATION doesn’t offer anything particularly new past the most basic level that one can sink their teeth into.
I was unmoved by the deeper theme about our own destructive nature, put off by the bookend storytelling structure, confused at an unnecessary affair flashback subplot, and irritated at all the questionable decisions and explanations (or lack thereof) within the outline of the story. By the end, I realized, I also didn’t care. ANNIHILATION is not ARRIVAL or ALIENS. Instead, it is a more forgettable, dramatized version of 2001’s comedy EVOLUTION.