A film review by Craig J. Koban March 6, 2018


2018, R, 115 mins.


Natalie Portman as Lena  /  Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr. Ventress  /  Gina Rodriguez as Anya Thorensen  /  Tessa Thompson as Josie Radek  /  Oscar Isaac as Kane  /  Tuva Novotny as Cass Sheppard  /  Bern Collaco as Scientist

Written and directed by Alex Garland, based on the book by Jeff VanderMeer





In a relative age when compelling speculative science fiction is an increasingly rare commodity at the cinemas, I wholeheartedly welcome in open arms genre efforts like ANNIHILATION, which is another thematically strong and viscerally immersive sci-fi film from writer/director Alex Garland, whom previously made a large splash with his superlative Oscar winning directorial debut in EX MACHINA and, before that, made a niche for himself penning SUNSHINE and 28 DAYS LATER.  

Much like EX MACHINA, ANNIHILATION once again demonstrates a willingness by its UK director to take calculated risks with the material and going down some daring narrative paths that poses many tantalizing questions without directly answering them.  That, and the film is grotesquely frightening at times while engaging us with its thoughtful storytelling.  It may not stick to a climatic landing as well as I would have liked, but ANNIHILATION makes up for its creative messiness at times with its boundless ambition. 

There have been innumerable alien invasion movies before - or movies with some sort of variation of that genre - but perhaps none as chillingly unique as of late as this one.  Garland's film opens in the present and introduces us to Lena (Natalie Portman), who appears shaken and puzzled while she's being detained and questioned by a man wearing a decontamination suit.  He calmly asks her a series of specific questions about what she's gone through, only to be stymied with her apparent short term memory loss and inability to recall basic details.  She provides some very vague recollections here and there, but is frustratingly non-specific.  From here Garland flashes back to the past and then back to the present, with the cycle repeating itself to create some semblance of a whole as to what has happened to this troubled woman.  Normally, I have no issue with using this type of non-linear storytelling structure, but here it disappointingly doesn't flow through the story with as much fluidity as I would have wanted, not to mention that it subverts suspense later on when Lena - in the present - does recall the fate of many of her colleagues before we are shown it in flashbacks, which seems dramatically counterproductive. 



In an early flashback we learn that Lena was ex-military, now serving as a biology professor that's trying to get on with her life after the tragic disappearance of her presumed dead husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac).  Then one day...Kane returns home, showing the same suspicious memory lapses that Lena displayed in the opening scene of the film in the present.  Something just seems really, really off about him, but she does discover that he was part of a top secret government task force that was assembled to enter a mysterious area called "The Shimmer," which gets its name for the nebulous-like cloudy bubble that cascades over a forested area in Florida.  The Shimmer originated in space in the form of a meteor, which crashed into a light house and then began spreading like a virus.  Everyone that the government has sent into The Shimmer to investigate has never returned, with the one exception being Kane. 

Seeing as Kane grows sicker by the day in his post-Shimmer expedition reappearance and eventually becomes unable to provide tangible information, this springs Lena into action with another group of intrepid explorers that wish to venture into The Shimmer and - fingers crossed - make it back out alive.  The five woman team includes - on top of Lena - a psychiatric doctor, Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh); a paramedic, Anya (Gina Rodriguez); an anthropologist, Cass (Tuva Novotny); and a physicist (Tessa Thompson).  As the brave squad enters into The Shimmer and attempt to unlock all of its beguiling mysteries and halt its expansion on the rest of the world they soon learn what happened to Kane and his own squad in the form of a left behind video diary, which sends them into a frightened panic and the realization that those in The Shimmer can be affected in deeply disturbing ways both physically and mentally.  Survival - and not scientific exploration - soon becomes the predominating focus of Lena and her team. 

The Shimmer itself becomes an enthralling environmental character in ANNIHILATION, which is stunningly realized by Garland and his visual effects team as a dense rainforest that's peppered by strange and exotically colorful plant and animal mutations.  Crocodiles, for example, seem to perplexingly have the same teeth structure as sharks, which hints that The Shimmer has caused some impossible breeding of incongruent animal life.  There's also a bear-like creature that - even more terrifyingly - screams in an eerily human-like manner.  Even though that, yes, Lena and her team are indeed traveling through a section of Florida, the terrain nevertheless looks and feels positively extraterrestrial and is laced with a lingering sense of danger and dread that more dangerous biological oddities await them as they journey deeper into it.  On a level of fostering an undulating sense of unease and tension, Garland crafts these sequences for maximum chill factor and are among the best scenes in the whole movie.  ANNIHILATION is a rare alien movie that doesn't really have a main alien protagonist, per se, attacking the heroes; nature itself here becomes the real villain.   

ANNIHILATION has its share of grisly violence and action thrown in for good measure, which usually takes the form of Lena's squad desperately trying to defend themselves against biologically unexplained phenomena and abominations that are the stuff of nightmares.  The fear of the unknown is what makes ANNIHILATION so ultimately gripping throughout its opening two thirds, and on top of employing some thanklessly seamless visual effects work the sound design here is quite masterfully rendered, which not only helps cement viewers in The Shimmer with the frazzled characters, but it also helps keeping us off balance and disoriented throughout.  In the great tradition of survival horror/sci-fi, ANNIHILATION forces audience members to take a journey with its characters into places you don't want to go, and Garland relishes at all of the stomach churning possibilities contained within. 

This is also a decidedly rare sci-fi film that's headlined by a predominantly female cast, which is something to be embraced and celebrated, to be sure.  I only wished that some of the team members that made up Lena's squad came off more as fully fleshed out characters and not broadly delineated character types.  Most of the women here are only sketchily developed and, more or less, are kind of props being served up to the natural slaughter that The Shimmer threatens them with.  That's not to say that the performances aren't up to snuff, because they are.  In particular, I liked Rodriguez's credibly fidgety performance as her increasingly agitated and frightened anthropologist, but ANNIHILATION, to be fare, is Portman's film through and through.  Once you're willing to overcome the fact that the pint-sized Lena doesn't specifically come off as an authentic former soldier (Portman doesn't wholly pull off the raw physicality and mental toughness required for that), she nevertheless becomes a rock solid audience conduit into the unrelenting strangeness that surrounds her.  You can sense Lena's growing trepidation as the film progresses as we witness her teeth clenched efforts to simply stay alive and get to ground zero of this alien occurrence.   

This takes me to the climax of ANNIHILATION, which is, paradoxically enough, spectacularly rendered and feverishly disorienting while, at the same time, not quite working and building towards the type of truly powerful payoff that the narrative deserved.  Garland, to his credit, doesn't go for the obligatory standoff between hero and extraterrestrial villain here, instead opting for a head trippy climax that commendably doesn't wrap everything up in a neat and tidy bow.  It's great that ANNIHILATION defies conventional genre troupes and descriptions in the manner that it develops and unravels, and Garland's film is unquestionably eye-opening and visually dazzling.   It also intriguingly explores ageless sci-fi themes of identity, self-destruction, and the fragility of the human condition when placed in pressure cooker situations involving things that go beyond our understanding.  I think the fractured narrative mosaic of the story hurts its payoffs at times, and, on the whole, ANNIHILATION doesn't quite simmer with as much intimacy and intrigue as EX MACHINA (I preferred its insular approach much more).  This is a flawed sophomore effort from Garland, but it remains a sci-fi thriller of uncommon intelligence and challenging ideas, which is certainly in short supply for the genre these days.   

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