Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist and former soldier who arrives at a research base in Area X following the reappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who had gone missing on a classified military operation. As Kane slips into a coma, Lena agrees to join a team of other scientists on a journey into The Shimmer, an unknown area of alien origin which is rapidly expanding to cover everything surrounding it. The team’s mission is to reach the centre of the anomaly to collect whatever data they can, and Lena is joined by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny) and Josie (Tessa Thompson). As they travel further into The Shimmer they experience the strange effects of the alien zone, from memory loss to technology failure to the wild mutations of the plants and animals.
The strange case of Annihilation is not the first time that studio anxiety has led to some curiously conservative choices. Perhaps cowed by Blade Runner 2049’s pedestrian box office take, or convinced that any science fiction without T.I.E. Fighters has only niche appeal, Alex Garland’s follow up to the magnificent and cerebral Ex-Machina was sold to Netflix to premiere on the streaming platform. Meaning no cinema release anywhere outside the U.S., much to the frustration of vocal fans aggrieved at being denied the opportunity to see Annihilation on the big screen.
As novelist, screenwriter and now director, Garland has consistently delivered intelligent and entertaining material, responsible for writing The Beach, 28 Days Later and the phenomenal Dredd movie. Add in an impressive, heavyweight cast and the fact it is based on a well regarded novel (the Nebula award winning book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer) Annihilation seems like a shoe-in for both box office draw and critical adoration.
Quite why Annihilation would cause Paramount to panic-sell to Netflix is anybody’s guess. Although if reports of disappointing test screenings and clashes over the ending are anything to go by, then Garland’s second-to-none pedigree was clearly not enough. If that is indeed the reason, then its altogether more confounding, given that Garland was given the reigns of the project off the back of another science fiction picture – his bone fide masterpiece, Ex-Machina.
The result, however, like everything connected to Annihilation, is bit more complicated. Garland has crafted an impressive and eminently watchable movie with a strong cast and some psychedelic visuals, and yet despite all this, it falls a little flat. Whether the ethereal approach is masking some underlying subtext is for us to discuss at a later date, but on face value there’s not a lot more to Annihilation than a bunch of individually troubled people exploring an alien locale. There’s certainly nothing to equate to the skull trembling existentialism of Ex-Machina, and thus it is a little underwhelming.
The Shimmer is an expanding area of strangeness into which people enter and do not return, and this alien expanse brings to mind The Zone in Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s seminal science fiction novel Roadside Picnic. While the Shimmer is expanding and the Zone is a static range, both are fraught with danger and present visitors with an array of disorientating and deadly effects. The Zone has alien artefacts and invisible traps, while The Shimmer directly affects biology, reorganising D.N.A. Both Annihilation and Roadside Picnic have our protagonists dealing with the effect an alien incursion is having on our planet, and what it’s doing to us. And we neither ask for, nor receive, an explanation for either. Finally, the scientific team entering The Shimmer could well be compared to Stalkers in the Strugatskys universe.
Annihilation treads a nice line in ambiguity and flirts with the same kind of beautiful, head-scratching obtuseness as 2001: A Space Odyssey, leaving much open to interpretation. At least it does for the most part, only for it to undermine itself in places by explaining the strange encounters in solid detail. It leaves us wondering if someone tore through the script with a red pen, demanding explanations. And it’s this strangely logical exposition – that is at odds with conduct of the rest of the movie – that makes Annihilation a frustrating, enigmatic experience.
Of the cast, we get a set of faultless performances and Portman casts a long shadow as Lena. Largely stoic and downbeat, her actions come with an inevitability to them. Her journey seems almost one of obligation rather than choice. She has no other option than to confront The Shimmer head on.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is reliably excellent as Dr. Ventriss. Secretive and guarded, Ventriss maintains an inscrutable façade. Her motivation and humanity are kept under wraps throughout. Tessa Thompson is also great as Josie, perhaps the most relatable character of the expedition. And Gina Rodriguez visibly enjoys playing against type from her Jane the Virgin character; Anya is tough and ready to throw down when necessary.
While we might hope it unnecessary to point out, it is refreshing that the cast of Annihilation is almost entirely female, turning the tables on the traditional, male dominated, ‘men-on-a-mission’ storyline. In fact, Oscar Isaac, David Gyasi and Benedict Wong are the only male characters in the film, and they are all supporting roles.
It’s possible the weight of expectation is why Annihilation does not fully resonate and therefore perhaps this is simply an individual reaction. Audiences going in fresh, and those for whom Ex-Machina did not set the world alight, might well get more out of the film. It’s not even that there is much to find fault with, as Annihilation is certainly at the top end of recent science fiction and its attempt to do things on its own terms are admirable. Conceptually, this strange pilgrimage to an unknown destination, with no real villain to speak of, is highly intriguing.
Ultimately, Annihilation proves to be a bit of a puzzle. It doesn’t really do too much wrong, and yet it doesn’t reach the lofty heights that were expected of it. It gives us a story completely on its own terms, and yet doesn’t quite connect. And these strange contradictions of approach versus impact seem ironically appropriate in light of The Shimmer’s own distorting effects. Annihilation might well prove to be one of those movies that becomes richer with every viewing, but for now, let’s say that it’s well worth your time, but it may not blow your mind.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10