REVIEW – “Annihilation”: A Mysterious, if Not Underwhelming Sci-Fi Game Changer

by Joe Hammerschmidt

If one were to say there’s no room for a breath of new life with the standard science fiction movie, chances are they are wrong, slightly. British-born writer/director Alex Garland has attempted to redefine the genre as a whole using simple, yet striking motifs: Sunshine eclipsed space travel, 28 Days Later covered the niche field of contagion, Ex Machina became his crown jewel when he changed how we thought about artificial intelligence in humanoid robots. With his latest Annihilation, Garland takes a crack with both a nature-gone-wild story and an alien encounter tale, merging the two together with a little disconnect. Yet somehow, it’s not as simple as that. And I can guarantee you now, he rewards the patient with a methodical storytelling approach and the curious with clues that may only make sense with repeat viewings.

Natalie Portman commits to a sea of bravery as Lena, a celebrated Johns Hopkins biology professor whose experience with cell division had won her high praise in the scientific community. Yet her personal life appears in a state of persistent flux, made worse with the sudden return of her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), previously considered dead on duty.

What starts out as a sudden medical emergency for Kane immediately turns into a mission of closure for Lena. A mysterious host had consumed her spouse while attempting to uncover the secrets of a quiet alien-like community, taking refuge around a coastal lighthouse, with an oddly pretty-looking forcefield, aptly named by the military insurgency as “The Shimmer.” Yes, it’s colorful, and therefore inviting, but no less dangerous, as seen by essentially every nearby forest creature out for blood.

Still, Lena and her compatriots, physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny), paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), and the overly determined Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are unfazed by the challenge at hand: discover who, or what, is residing in that lighthouse, and identify the cause of any likely contagion. Understandably, it drives the quartet to near-madness every time absolute death is cheated. It almost turns impossible to watch at those moments where common sense no longer matters in the slightest.

Garland, in only his second time in the director’s chair, has proven his knack of assuring an audience there’s a reason for whatever is the unexpected to occur. Yet Annihilation is a case where something is clearly lost in translation. Inspired by Jeff Vandermeer’s Wayward South trilogy of books, Garland’s writing style and taste for bombastic soundscapes is on full display. However, he inadvertently sacrifices any chance of his script losing the viewer into the crossfire, with less than iconic characters.

His cast is nonetheless appropriately selected, all playing to their strengths. It will be impossible not to wonder just why they’re all circling around Lena, and why they end up weighing down the closing half-hour to no avail. At first, one may have expected a terra-firma equivalent to the interpersonal space operetta Gravity, but no dice. Portman and Isaac should have shared more time together, but once again his talents are left underused in favor of a welcome surplus of girl power deserving of a stronger script that could allow them to bond. Miss Natalie is still ever the capable leader, in what belongs among her more strong solo leads, falling below the heights of Jackie or Black Swan, but certainly above Thor. Yet that simply is not enough to convince me of her actions, and that of her character’s proving justified through the murky swamps. Jason Leigh, Thompson and Rodriguez are committed by her side, and the three on their own provide driven character acting but contribute little to help her when the four are in the same room, despite having some of the splashier dialogue. Not even a welcome appearance by Benedict Wong could help, and his scenes brought a little more intensity out of Portman.

Clearly, the problem I had, if it could be summed up better than explained in detail, is Mr. Garland didn’t spend much time in getting characterization just right before planting them into a world they clearly do not understand. Annihilation may provide us a highly cerebral vision of futuristic alien camaraderie in a primitive form, yet you’ll wonder why they bothered in the first place. It still comes to a head either way in that pivotal final half-hour where it either sustains its relevance or requires the viewer to watch again, perhaps multiple times before they really get the idea. I dread that it simply will not happen, but I’m hopeful a repeat viewing could clear some of that fog. Plenty can be said for what Garland gets right, which is relegated to Portman’s acting, the sound mixing, and visual effects determined not to call too much attention. It doesn’t come close to the masterpiece status I was hoping, but it’s the type of sci-fi feature that will hopefully turn more understandable to the more I think about it. That is if I were to think it all next time. (C+)

Annihilation is in most area theaters this weekend; rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality; 115 minutes.