In 2014, author Jeff Vandermeer published his Southern Reach Trilogy. It consisted of the books Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, all three of which were published within the span of only eight months. The trilogy was described as a science fiction and horror story. If the release schedule wasn’t impressive enough, it seems that almost immediately after publication, Vandermeer got a deal with Paramount Pictures. The trailer for Annihilation dropped in December of 2017, and it really did look great. I wanted to see it in theaters, but something came up and I missed the opportunity. But it was released on digital a little while ago, and one of my family members picked it up, so I was able to give it a watch. To say that I was surprised would be an understatement.
Annihilation was written and directed by Alex Garland, the brain behind 2015’s Ex Machina. The film starred Natalie Portman as biologist Lena alongside Oscar Isaac playing the role of her husband Kane. Other cast members included Jennifer Jason Leigh as psychologist Dr. Ventress, Gena Rodriguez as EMT Anya, Tuva Novotney as anthropologist Cass Sheppard, and Tessa Thompson as the chemist Josie Raddek.
After being deployed on a top secret mission by the United States government a year ago, Lena’s husband Kane has had no contact with her, and so she believes him to be deceased. When he mysteriously reappears seriously ill, Lena wishes to know where he’s been and what has happened. His superiors reveal that the United States is afflicted with a scientific anomaly near impossible to study. Referred to as “the Shimmer”, it is an ever expanding, glittering wall that surrounds portions of land and morphs whatever is inside. For years, they’ve sent in military teams to explore, but no one has come back except for Kane. The organization heading the investigation has now decided to send scientists instead. Driven by her husband’s illness, Lena decides to join the expedition along with four other women to try to figure out what exactly is held within the shimmer and reach the point where it all began.
I have yet to see Ex Machina, so Annihilation was my first introduction to Garland. If this film proves anything about him or his creative style, he’s quite ambitious. I came away from this film respecting it far more than I liked it, but before I get into that, I want to talk about some of the positives. Technically speaking, this film is very well made. It’s well framed, well shot, and the CG for the most part was impressive. There were some weak points, for example when Lena is getting her first look at the Shimmer you can clearly tell Portman is in front of a green screen and any moments with the bear especially, the CG starts to break down, but other than that it was fine. For what it was, the Shimmer looked good and the environment within it, at times was close to stunning.
As expected, the performances in the film were great. I will admit to liking some more than others, but I don’t know if I can blame the actors, because I took massive issue with this script. One actress I was particularly surprised by was Ms. Novotny. This is the first time I’ve seen her in a US release, and I hope she’s able to get more work in mainstream cinema.
Now that I’ve covered all the good things, let’s talk about what I didn’t like. I know that I’m probably in the minority on this, so feel free to disagree, leave comments, all that fun stuff. I would love to talk about this. I thought the script for Annihilation was incredibly weak and I was bothered by a couple of story and plot elements. The dialogue itself I thought was fairly solid, but overall I thought the script failed to properly develop the cast. Aside from one seemingly forced interaction between Lena and Cass revealing that the women had all been somehow damaged and another sort of genuine interaction between Lena and Ventress, meaningful character development was almost nowhere. I was definitely interested in Portman’s character Lena, but I didn’t find myself truly caring about any of them. The only thing that kept me really invested were the actresses playing them.
Another issue with this film and possibly my greatest complaint is that it had a tendency to sacrifice logic for the sake of symbolism or propelling to plot. These next few comments might seem like nitpicks to some, but when logical fallacies pop up four or five times in a movie, it takes the audience out of the experience and becomes a problem. Some moments that stuck out to me were in the first half of the film when the team is camping out in an abandoned army base and they wake to a very unpleasant noise of the night to find out that a mutant bear has broken through the perimeter fence. Instead of running back up to their watch tower as soon as they’ve discovered the bear, they proceed to still stand in the grass and look for it.
Another moment was the time of Josie’s death. Josie dies after she has revealed that the Shimmer is a prism scrambling and mutating literally everything within it. They stumble upon an area inhabited by strange plants that have taken the form of humans. After witnessing the deaths of two of her colleagues its here that Dr. Ventress decides to go off on her own, and Josie gives up the will to live and decides to become one with the environment, transforming into one of the plant forms, leaving Lena alone. My problem with this is that it’s only revealed what the Shimmer does a handful of minutes before Josie “dies” and we never see the plant stems sprouting from her skin until that very moment, and then the transformation is seemingly instantaneous, it isn’t progressive like the other changes the team has experienced.
The last moments in the film like this that I’ll touch on is the ending. Personally, I didn’t think it made much sense, and it made me question the rest of the film. So, as expected, Lena succeeds in making it to the lighthouse that is said to be the root cause of the shimmer. I will give it to Garland, the sort of other worldly creature found within it did have a cool and unique design to it, and I liked that it spawned a creature to mimic her. However, I did it find it weird that after she found out her husband set a grenade off in the lighthouse the building was still perfectly intact and so was his skeleton. Not to be disgusting, but I don’t believe that. Another thing that bothered me was the fact that Lena was able to set off a grenade later on and presumably destroy this alien life form. There’s nothing wrong with it exactly, I just found it wildly anticlimactic and overly simple. While I was watching it too, I realized that the movie never actually states the dimensions of the shimmer and whether or not it expanded beyond land. If the root cause was located inside of lighthouse, couldn’t they have just sailed to the location of the lighthouse, thereby avoiding all of the terrible things on land? I’ve never read the book this is based on, so I don’t know how accurate the film is, but regardless, they should’ve caught that.
One last thing I’ll talk about real fast, something I think people should know before they watch this, is that this film is very graphic. It’s not a horror movie exactly, but it does not shy away from showing off guts and intense bodily harm. I did not know this going and I am incredibly squeamish, and so parts of this were very unpleasant for me personally. If you like horror you’ll probably be fine, but if you don’t, I would just stay away.
So, those are my thoughts on Annihilation. This film has a surprisingly high rating on Rotten Tomatoes, almost to the degree that I think I’m crazy for not liking it. If you are huge into science fiction or are just really passionate about cinema and want to see as much as possible, I can recommend it, but for everybody else, I say skip it. Even with it being well directed with a surprisingly great and eerie score, the story and characters just didn’t come together for me.
FINAL REVIEW SCORE: 2.5/5