Genre: Sci-Fi Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 55 min.
Release Date: February 23rd, 2018 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Alex Garland Actors: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, David Gyasi
riter/director Alex Garland attempts to turn the preconceptions of an alien encounter on its head. Contact with an alien life-form may not always net the answers one expects or hopes for; an explanation isn’t mandatory. Or is it? The level of abstractness Garland injects into “Annihilation” won’t satisfy those seeking meaning in their extraterrestrial confrontations, but obscurity often leads to energizing intrigue and welcome speculation. The problem Garland introduces, however, comes in the form of contradicting rationalizations in biology and psychology. Are the terrors within organic or imagined? “Annihilation” isn’t sure, which in turn offers little aid to the audience attempting to cognize the already-cryptic information thrown at them. Despite a narrative structure that counteracts many of the horror elements, and an alien world that won’t play by its own rules, “Annihilation” still presents noteworthy production design, eerily escalating tension, and intriguing science-fiction notions that all but demand post-viewing discussion.
Biology professor Lena’s (Natalie Portman) husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) goes missing shortly after starting a classified military assignment. When he mysteriously reappears in her house almost a year later, and in a near-death condition, both the dying soldier and his stunned wife are transported by the army to Area X, a top-secret outpost situated just beyond the border of an extraterrestrial bubble dubbed the “Shimmer.” Numerous expeditions have ventured into the steadily expanding phenomenon, but no one has ever returned, save for the deteriorating Kane. Desperate to find answers that might help resuscitate her husband, Lena joins the next group entering the Shimmer – an all-female unit comprised of psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and geomorphologist Cassie Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). But once inside the Shimmer’s perimeter, the group quickly succumbs to the reality-altering affects of the enigmatic sphere, rapidly precipitating thoughts of never returning home.
Discontent with telling a linear story, writer/director Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”) begins at the end, revealing in the first moments that Lena is the lone survivor of a harrowing expedition. Not only does this shortsightedly prevent most of her later sequences from posing their full potential of suspense (since she surely can’t die), but it also reveals that her teammates won’t be joining her for debriefing. Further adding to the unnecessary narrative spoilers are flashbacks, some of which are repetitive but with seconds appended for slow revelations.
The inevitable answers to all the bizarre happenings are supposed to make up for the bits of information the audience already possesses, but they arrive with little hurry. A secret mission conducted by secret agents in secret locations builds up a sense of annoyance rather than mystery or adventure. “We have many theories, few facts,” comments Ventress. Fortunately, when it’s revealed that previous platoons of soldiers and scientists have either been killed or kill each other, the setup grows more unnerving, which smartly fits with the sci-fi horror working its way through the plot.
Like a serious, horror version of the “Ghostbusters” remake (especially with their uniforms and gear, though they venture onward, head-scratchingly, without gas masks), “Annihilation” boasts a tough, intelligent, accomplished, capable team of women, each seemingly as comfortable with a microscope as with a machine gun. The cast is exceptional, portraying relatable, sympathetic souls marching through biological wonders and terrors, which feature stunning set designs and decorations. CG monstrosities aren’t as impressive, but the thrills are consistent; generating dread is the film’s high point, since it otherwise relies on typical, ghastly visuals to scare the audience. Nothing much is left to the imagination, especially when it comes to violence. The camerawork is also notable, particularly when it off-centers the characters, leaving extensive amounts of the screen empty, from which something can shift into the frame, all of a sudden.
The Shimmer distorts memories, which is a neat trick, but one that isn’t utilized enough (and has no specific implications for the conclusion). Nevertheless, each crew member is pushed by curiosity or fear, driving them closer and closer to the truth. The journey is fraught with nail-biting interactions, playing with concepts of identity, individuality, existence, mutations, the nature of cell division and duplication (and duality), and what it means to be human. Unfortunately, just as it writes a rule for how the otherworldly occurrences behave, it proceeds to break it, continually challenging the various things it defines mere moments after defining them. Plenty of penetrating science-fiction themes are explored, though the film is more interested in jumpy moments than in getting to the bottom of the Shimmer. Still, it’s both creative and frightening. It’s not as action-packed as “Predator” (it’s actually more comparable to “Prometheus” and “Alien: Covenant”), nor as incomprehensible as “Under the Skin” (with which it shares a number of similarities), nor as aloof as “Arrival,” but it’s one of those rare drama/horror hybrids that hopes to encourage audiences to think – at the same time that they’re cowering. By the end, it’s also apparent that “Annihilation” is content with being more mystifying than satisfying.
– The Massie Twins