Alex Garland’s Annihilation, based on Jeff Vandermeer’s book, tells the story of a lighthouse struck by either an alien ship or a comet, after which a glossy field emerges. They call it The Shimmer and it seems to be devouring everything it comes into contact with and it is growing. Probes, drones and even military teams that are sent in, never to be seen or heard from again. Except one man named Kane (Oscar Isaac) who does make it back out and returns home to his grieving wife, fellow Army officer, Lena (Natalie Portman) who has since written him off as dead. When he has a medical emergency and is en route to the hospital, the ambulance is overtaken by mysterious government forces.
They are brought to a secret, undisclosed facility which is run by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a quiet and shady woman if there ever was one. After lines of questioning, it is revealed that another team, this time scientists, will be going into The Shimmer to try a piece together what exactly is going on. The team is made up of Biologists, Physicists, Psychologists…you name it. Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny), Josie (Tessa Thompson), Lena (Portman) and Dr. Ventress enter The Shimmer and their mission begins.
I was a huge fan of Alex Garland’s first film, Ex Machina from 2014, in which Garland wrote and directed that film with Oscar Isaac in a starring role as a scientist who may or may not have created a robot with Artificial Intelligence (AI). Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander rounded out the cast and it was an artful and intelligent film about the human soul and the AI’s yearning to be even more human and free. Annihilation is in the same vein, sort of, but with less promising results. This is not to say that it is a bad film, but this is not as fulfilling as Ex Machina.
In fact, overall, I enjoyed Annihilation, despite some issues I had with the film. It is a beautifully shot film with lush visuals, well acted by everyone and is a thoughtfully artful piece of science fiction storytelling. Garland’s script has some issues, though and it hurts the overall film. These are supposedly scientists at the top of their prospective fields. Yet, they don’t seem to catch on what The Shimmer is doing to life inside for a long time. I quickly caught on after a few minutes of them being in The Shimmer, but so much time is spent belaboring this point, that the film’s pacing lags. How is it I was able to figure out what The Shimmer was doing but it takes educated doctors a while longer to figure it out? At any rate, I was still interested in the story and its characters, but the film slows way down and the ending is anti-climactic as well as a bit depressing.
There are a few scenes of action which provided some real, genuine terror but at this point, we have no answers as to what is going on from the story, but most will be able to pick up what The Shimmer is doing before the first character does. Now there are some elements that are flashbacks, some are distracting, others will make you think. Most of them work within the confines of the story, but the flashbacks might take some out of the movie. It did not bother me, though and the more I thought about them, the more I enjoyed what Garland was doing. I also loved the score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (both scored Garland’s Ex Machina) which is a nice mix of electronic sound design combined with some acoustic guitar.
Annihilation is not for everybody and in fact, the friend that accompanied me to this screening hated Annihilation. He found it boring and an overall waste of time. I did not, although I understand some of his problems with this film and they are not without merit. Overall, however, I enjoyed Annihilation and what Alex Garland was going for. This is a film that is very “trippy”, if you will. It is not an Aliens kind of action film. It is a methodically effective film that Garland is good at making. While everything was more interesting in Ex Machina, Annihilation has enough going for it that I came away satisfied.
But know this, Annihilation is more of an artfully cerebral film. This is more of a dialogue and character driven film than a science fiction action film. As long as people know this, they might be able to enjoy it more. But Annihilation is not for everyone. People will get antsy and want something big to happen, but that is not what Annihilation is about. Garland knows what he wants to do with this material and overall he does a good job with it. This being only his second nod as both writer and director and having written 2012’s fantastic reboot of Dredd and Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, Garland shows he is a talent to watch for.
Annihilation – ***1/2 out of 5
Annihilation – Rated R for graphic violence, gore and language
Annihilation – Runtime is 120 minutes
Annihilation is now playing in theaters. Check your local listings for times and locations nearest you.