Annihilation is a wonderful mess of a film. It manages to be intelligent and intricate, while at the same time it can be silly and superficial. There’s a dreamlike quality to its narrative, which flows forwards and backwards in time, leaving a pervading disorientation that masks just how thin the story really is.
Knocking the simplistic plot and characters, however, completely misses the point of Annihilation. Alex Garland’s follow-up to 2014’s masterful sci-fi opus Ex Machina is an exercise in tension and cerebral gymnastics. Garland has proven that he doesn’t worry about wowing audiences with clever twists or fancy speechifying. He’s more concerned about messing with your head; smashing brawny existential themes and human frailty into tightly coiled science fiction scenarios. When Annihilation is finished with you, the only safe place left to hide is your own head which, as we all know, is the scariest place of all.
Three years ago, a strange cloud that resembles shimmering oil in water (ingeniously named the ‘Shimmer’) engulfed a chunk of coastline and has been expanding inland ever since. Each poor soul tasked with investigating the phenomenon has disappeared without a trace. One of those poor souls is Kane (Oscar Isaac), who bid his wife Lena (Natalie Portman) farewell over a year ago. Lena, a former Army officer who now teaches biology at John Hopkins, knows nothing about the Shimmer… until Kane suddenly reappears and starts vomiting blood. For future reference, roses are generally regarded as a nicer way to say, “I’m sorry for disappearing.”
Lena’s character, like all of the characters in Annihilation, is prone to saying ridiculously on-the-nose exposition like, “There’s something strange about this mission,” and “Something here is making giant waves in the gene pool.” Frankly, it’s hard to take Lena seriously as a scientist, which probably explains why Garland also made her ex-military. If she can’t beat her enemy with science, she can always use a machine gun.
As Kane clings to life in a military hospital, Lena prepares to get some payback as part of an all-female crew training to infiltrate the Shimmer. You have the emotionless psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the sensitive Cass (Tuva Novotny), the feisty paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), and the troubled physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson). These pithy descriptions are not exaggerations, as each character is imbued with a bare minimum of distinctiveness. The only thing tying them together is a self-destructive streak that has plunged their lives into chaos.
“We’re all damaged goods here,” Cass observes as she and Lena share a perfunctory quiet moment together.
Even Garland seems bored with this introductory section; interspersing an interrogation of Lena after she emerges seemingly unscathed from the Shimmer. Once our five heroines reach the Shimmer, though, Garland isn’t fooling around. Deliberate pacing and unsettling visuals ratchet the tension to excruciating levels. Annihilation is a sci-fi film that works well as a straight-up horror film, much like Alien used a sci-fi premise to deliver the scares. Indeed, there are many similarities to Ridley’s Scott’s ‘haunted house in space,’ as these characters are also trapped in an inescapable haunted house full of Giger-esque horrors.
There are scenes sprinkled throughout Annihilation that will truly haunt you, as when Lena and the gang encounter a bear-like creature that sounds uncannily human. It’s these nightmarish moments, when the familiar and the alien coalesce into something decidedly odd, that Garland exerts complete control of his audience. Taking massive liberties with the popular 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Garland builds an enigmatic collection of half-realized thoughts and weighty themes about identity, self-destruction, and environmentalism. And then things really get nutty in the final act!
It’s justifiably debatable whether Annihilation is a cerebral paradox designed to challenge audiences or just a complete mess enabled by narrative gaps. What can’t be debated is the sense of dread hanging over this journey into the heart of darkness. Arresting visuals, such as crystalline trees or grotesquely mutated flowers, infuse Garland’s fevered dream with abstract delights that far outweigh any narrative shortcomings.
Of course, much has been made of Garland’s choice to cast Portman in the lead, forcing him to deflect charges of whitewashing (Lena is revealed to be of Asian descent in subsequent VanderMeer novels). It’s unlikely that any actress, regardless of nationality or ethnicity, could have rendered Lena as a three dimensional character. Portman does her best to lend humanity to what is an otherwise cold affair, but none of the other actresses are given a chance to shine. More vexing is that none of these (presumably) intelligent female characters get to use their professional expertise to solve any problems. Ultimately, firepower outweighs brain power, much like any action film populated solely by men.
Annihilation is a visceral cinematic experience that, while plagued with structural problems, delivers plenty of thrills and eye-popping spectacle. You’ll be scared and baffled in equal measure, which is more than enough to recommend this whacked-out trip.