Writer/director Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” is about duality, specifically the uncomfortable contrast between suicide and self destruction. Because it’s a such a predictable, lumbering and thoroughly unpleasant film, it seems to have much less on its mind.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a former soldier turned biologist who is abducted and forced to take part in a bizarre mission. Three years earlier, a fallen star created a massive landscape, referred to as The Shimmer, full of genetic mutations and oversized monsters. No one who enters The Shimmer has ever returned. For personal reasons I’ll leave vague, Lena convinces Dr. Ventress (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), the head of the operation for containing the phenomenon, into joining her and an entirely female-led team on a mission to the source of The Shimmer.
Garland authored “The Beach” and wrote/directed the admirable but seriously over-praised “Ex Machina” a few years back. Much of the first act of “Annihilation” is remarkably similar to “Arrival” (both films are about lovesick scientists, working in academia, who are recruited to explore extraterrestrial phenomena). Garland allows character and narrative to build carefully and pulls us in with vivid CGI. Where he ultimately takes us feels like reheated bits from “The Mist,” “Event Horizon” and especially “John Carpenter’s The Thing,” oozing together after too much time in the microwave. You know you’re in trouble when your first action sequence, involving a killer croc, feels like an outtake from “Lake Placid.”
Despite the strong build-up, our heroes come across as even dopier than the foolish scientists in those Ridley Scott “Alien” prequels: if you’re entering a force field into an alien landscape, wouldn’t you wear protective breathing gear and armored suits? Why on Earth would you sleep in a deadly jungle in a bright yellow tent? This is one of those horror movies where people do dumb things all the time, like venture into a sinister looking cave that is clearly a bad place or turn their backs to a lurking monster.
For some reason, everyone speaks in hushed whispers. It neuters the performances and kills the anticipation of seeing Portman and Leigh, masterful actors, finally working together. I’m a fan of co-star Tessa Thompson but the mannered dialog delivery makes her work seem especially foolish. Playing the loony role of Portman’s husband is Oscar Isaac, who shouldn’t be in movies like “Suburbicon” or this.
There is one really scary sequence and the creature effects are persuasive. Because there’s no life to the characters or performances (though Portman is really trying here), there’s no suspense. Despite a few lofty ideas tossed around, this operates like your average slasher movie. The world of The Shimmer provides some neat visuals but note how lovingly positioned everything appears. It looks exactly like what it is: art direction.
I had already given up on the movie well before the big ending, which will likely be discussed for years to come. If nothing else, the climatic, elaborate light show is full of cool and revolting visuals that guarantees this will garner a cult following. I dug all the pretty colors but openly laughed at how silly the whole thing is. A better comparison than “Arrival” is “Altered States,” which managed to balance grand scientific concepts into a bonkers sci-fi monster movie. Some key components that movie has that this one lacks: it was fun, enjoyable and had a sense of humor.
“Annihilation” feels much longer than its two-hour running time and will likely inspire walkouts from a mid-way sequence that is alarmingly gruesome. There’s a lot of nightmare fodder here but it’s overly familiar, down to the obvious closing moment. Garland’s film is ambitious but his rich visuals serve the story the way newspaper is used to wrap a dead fish.
One and a Half Stars
–originally published in Maui Time Weekly