Movie Review: Annihilation
Annihilation is like a buffet filled with a lot of your favorite movie dishes, but half an hour after you finish you might feel empty.
This review is going to be fairly critical, but I wanted to get it out there that I think Annihilation is a worthwhile movie if you like science fiction. Based on the book by Jeff VanderMeer, I really appreciated that this style of science fiction, often represented in literature but rarely attempted on screen, finally got a green light. It’s an above average movie, has some really unique visuals, and boasts a strong cast. Unfortunately, an odd narrative decision at the beginning combines with a lack-luster ending to keep Annihilation from getting a recommendation for a wider audience.
An unexplained event along the gulf of Mexico is slowly spreading, and no one that enters the area, dubbed “The Shimmer,” ever returns. When one near-dead man (Oscar Isaac) from the military reappears after a year MIA in the zone, his biologist wife (Natalie Portman) and an all female recon team enter the zone to try and solve its mysteries.
Over Through the Rainbow
The real star of this attraction is the world inside The Shimmer. Evolution has gone sideways, and it is both beautiful and terrifying. As the team progresses closer to the epicenter, things get progressively stranger, and this slow hike towards the absurd is engrossing. It’s so worthwhile that I am going to do my damnedest to not say or show anything in that world, as being a participant in this trek is the major selling point in Annihilation…
…I just wish our hiking partners were a little more fleshed out.
The Fault in our Stars
The journey into oddity that all of these women embark on could have been truly compelling, if handled correctly. Director/Screenplay Writer Alex Garland (Ex Machina) made some design choices that really hamstrung character development, and as a result, the film in total. At the very beginning the movie makes it explicit that our time in The Shimmer is Lena’s (Portman) retelling; we also find out that only she survived the journey. We also only ever get deep dives into Lena’s life. Everyone else gets the bare minimum of exposition.
This destroys the tension, as we all know that everyone else is going to get it somehow, some way. It also gives you less reason to care when these women finally do meet their fates. Every single actress in the film is a bona fide talent (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny), so why waste them? Annihilation reminded me both of The Thing and Saving Private Ryan. Unfortunately, It just didn’t compare well to those films.
This is the End?
I found Annihilation’s ending unsatisfactory, both in emotional and intellectual payoff.
Lena’s final confrontation with the mystery revealed things that were supposed to completely uproot her world, and in so doing jar the audience. Once again, the opening stole the gravitas. While I should have been more impressed with these revelations, they just didn’t resonate. It also didn’t help that Natalie Portman wasn’t her best in this film. There was an early scenes were she was flippant and deeply, emotionally human (which is good), but then she spends the rest of the film being fairly bland (which is bad). More V for Vendetta, less Attack of the Clones next time, please.
This movie set itself up with the premise of rational people discovering and trying to understand the irrational. It very clearly seems to want the science to be taken seriously in Science Fiction. The ending was, at best, science-ish. I left feeling like I had purchased a ticket to a symposium on the wonders of the natural world and the keynote speaker had been switched to magician David Blaine. Bright lights, trippy visuals, and a !bwomm! soundtrack didn’t distract me enough to miss Alex Garland palming coins at the end.
Thnks fr th Mmrs
At the end of the day, the things I appreciated about the film might be things that held Annihilation back from being super. Most science fiction of this ilk ends up being straight horror: the science takes a back seat to the tension of who’s getting out alive. Swerving away from that and having a stranger in a strange land through-line made the film novel enough to keep me in the seat. I also really wanted to like the ensemble more than the film would let me (which is a feat, seeing as how much I enjoy Natlie Portman). Lastly, I’m thrilled that “harder” science fiction like Arrival or The Martian is getting the go ahead with more frequency these days. The halcyon days of science fiction might not be back quite yet, but it’s nice to break up the Comic Book Movie glut with something more thought provoking.
The trade off is that Annihilation doesn’t do any of these things at an A+ level. It’s Neapolitan ice cream: sure you get a bunch of flavors, but none of them really stand out as excellent. The visuals are nice, and it’s quite possible the twists and turns might hit home with some audiences more than they did with me; as such I give Annihilation a cautious recommendation.
The book series that birthed this movie is a trilogy; I’d be game for another movie in this series, if it brings its “A” game.