Venturing into the great unknown can be fear inducing and seductive, and with Annihilation we are given an entirely new universe called the Shimmer. With Natalie Portman at the ready and Ex Machina writer/director Alex Garland commandeering, what could possibly go wrong? While possessing a few quality moments, Annihilation isn’t as fantastic as it makes itself out to be, and many cinephiles will leave with the theaters with the bitter taste of disappointment.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is an ex-soldier turned biologist who is understandably traumatized by the year long disappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac). When Kane comes back a changed man from his expedition, Lena’s profound joy is immediately replaced by shock, as his mission has done irreparable damage to his psyche and physical status. The couple met as military colleagues (Kane is still a dutiful soldier), but their bond may not be as strong as initially perceived (due to Kane’s absences from frequent missions).
To understand the root of Kane’s problems, Lena takes part in an expedition into the Shimmer, an environment that, if it spreads, could lead to a negative impact on Earth and all of its inhabitants. Kane, as well as Lena, are the only individuals who have made it out of this unknowable world (the picture is told in flashback, as Lena recounts how the rest of her crew met their fate during the tragic journey). Jennifer Jason Leigh co-stars as Dr. Ventress, the unstable leader of the outfit who may be holding her share of secrets, with Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny rounding out the group.
Credit goes to Garland for attempting to make Annihilation, which is based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, a deeply layered sci-fi thriller. Each of the members have their own reason for partaking in this inevitable suicide mission, and as they journeys further into this veritable heart of darkness, we are given a closer look at why each of them see this trip as a one-way ticket.
Annihilation carries a similar existential theme to Garland’s Sunshine script (that underrated film had astronauts attempting to save the dying Sun), and while the latter succeeded as a character study that was weakened by a action genre-driven third act, the former’s failures come from the opposite direction. Though Portman delivers a solid performance, Annihilation only comes alive whenever the action takes center stage. Seeing these women battle it out with the creatures gives the film a necessary jolt, but the story is ultimately undone by dull, exposition laden sequences.
It also feels like forever before Lena enters the Shimmer, and the character building lead-up (i.e. her relationship with Kane) is unconvincingly mounted. Even the dialogue heavy sequences in the Shimmer, except for a finely tuned interrogation sequence, come off as extraneous and downright boring. A little less conversation and more action would have made Annihilation a compelling, rather than a forgettable, moviegoing experience.
Eye catching visuals from cinematographer Rob Hardy and an immersive score (from Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow) are two positive aspects of Annihilation, but the high end production can’t overcome the film’s oftentimes leaden narrative.
The final act, when Lena comes face to face with the truth and an eye-opening view of a new world, packs quite a punch. But then it’s much too late to save the day, and the film’s Twilight Zone-esque finale would have worked if we actually cared about these characters.
Cinema comes alive when actors and dialogue are woven into a story that feels like a living and breathing thing. Though it attempts to reaches that very place, Annihilation ends up being a sci-fi thriller that, save for a few moments, simply misses the mark.
Rating 2 out of 5
Annihilation hits theaters February 23. To hear this month’s episode of CinemAddicts, a movie review podcasts that I co-host with Anderson Cowan, take a listen below!