Genre: Science Fiction
Director: Alex Garland
Screenplay: Alex Garland, based on Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
Released: February 23, 2018
Starring: Natalie Portman as Lena, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr. Ventress, Gina Rodriguez as Anya Thorensen, Tessa Thompson as Josie Radek, Tuva Novotny as Cass Sheppard, and Oscar Isaac as Kane
Potential Spoilers Ahead
Lena is a biology professor and ex U.S. Army soldier. When her husband, Kane, returns after having been missing in action for some time, he is visibly quite ill. Lena calls an ambulance and the ambulance is promptly stopped by shadowy government types who spirit Lena and Kane away to a secret facility. While there, Lena is told about an anomaly, called “the shimmer,” that has recently emerged along the southern coast. She volunteers to join a team of scientist on an expedition into the anomaly to find its source. Along the way, the team lose track of large amounts of time, and a few are even picked off by the creatures that inhabit the place. In the end Lena and Ventress make it to the anomaly’s source, a lighthouse on the coast. Lena discovers a video recording of her husband’s last moments where he kills himself with a white phosphorous grenade whilst a doppelganger of himself looks on. Lena finds Ventress babbling incoherently in a subterranean chamber. Ventress tells Lena of the anomaly’s origins and then shatters into pieces. The pieces reform into a glowing amorphous structure. The structure absorbs a drop of blood from a cut on Lena’s face and reforms into something that resembles a human shape that makes 80s synthesizer noises when it walks. The creature mimics Lena’s every movement and eventually shifts to look exactly like her. Lena clutches a white phosphorous grenade and when the creature follows suit and mimics her actions, Lena pulls the pin and runs. The creature burns and in the process the anomaly is destroyed. Back at the base, Lena is “reunited” with Kane’s doppelganger. They embrace, and as they do, Lena’s eyes shift colours indicating that she either isn’t Lena or her time in the shimmer has caused something to mutate within her.
I’ll start by complimenting this flick. It certainly was pretty to look at. After so much of the overused Christopher Nolan haze and the washed out, muddy pseudo-retro thing, it was nice to watch a film with such vibrant colours. The bear creature stalking the ladies also looked decent, much better than I would expect from a film such as this that clearly harbors aspirations far beyond its budget. Hell, the last Marvel flick I watched had more than three times the budget this had and the effects looked worse. There were a couple of nice, slasher-worthy scenes too. One involving a woman losing her lower mandible to a mutated bear and the other involving a man having his stomach sliced open with a pocket knife. Those scenes, however, help me segue to what I disliked, if not absolutely abhorred about this flick.
Annihilation seems to want to straddle two completely different genres that do not work together. On the one hand, with its semi-fleshed out “final girl” protagonist accompanied by a quartet of disposable female meat shields and the stalking bear mutant, it has the makings of at least a decent sci-fi slasher flick. On the other hand, with its vague in the hopes of pretending to be interpreted as deeply symbolic and meaningful plot, it clearly has the other foot in the hipster pseudo sci-fi thing ala Arrival or The Fountain. This leads to some of those dissonant tonal shifts that seem to be oh so common in cinema right now. One minute, you’re cheering in the way you do when Jason Voorhees zips some bimbo up in a sleeping bag and beats her against a tree or puts his bare fist through some bro’s head, the next the flick wants you to take a moment and ponder something. What does it want you to ponder? Well, something. That same vague, generic, ill defined something that all of these pseudo deep wide as an ocean, deep as a puddle “intelligent” sci-fi pictures want you to ponder.
In keeping with the failed attempts at being deep, lets talk about the characterizations to which I alluded at the beginning of the previous paragraph. The characters are, quite seriously, written like a slasher flick. As the final girl, Natalie Portman’s Lena is presented as an almost fully realized character, not quite three dimensional, almost 2.5D if you like. The rest of them? Well, it’s off to the Acme random character generator for them. And what we get is a quartet of tired 1990s “chick flick” cliches. There’s a girl with a dead child; there is one who is terminally ill; there is even a cutter. If you feel like you’ve seen these characters before, you have, in a hundred bad melodramas marketed to teens and women over the years. The big difference is that now they’re carrying M-16s. Watch out patriarchy. The performances, from Natalie Portman down to Oscar Isaac, were uniformly terrible. I know I use this word a lot, but seems to be applying to more and more films these days, but they were wooden. Flat, stilted. If I had to single out any one as the worst, it would be difficult. Every actor has one emotion, one tone, that they rarely ever deviate from. Although, I think I would have to single out Oscar Isaac in that regard. Even in flashbacks, his character is dull, mumbling, and sleepy.
After an outstanding directorial debut with 2015’s Ex Machina, Alex Garland has taken one hell of a sophomore slump with this outing. Annihilation is a thematic and tonal mess, a shallow, meaningless flick with a message it has to tell you, but just isn’t quite sure what that message is. The visuals are most certainly pretty, and that is a welcome change from drab cinematic brutalism that has been choking cinema for near a decade now. Pretty visuals, however, are not enough of a reason to give this film a watch.