This review was written for and appears on Punch Drunk Movies. Check out the site when you have a chance.
I have to admit, I am a bit of an Alex Garland (“Ex Machina”) fanboy. In the waning days of college, I walked around with a tattered copy of The Beach proselytizing its amazingness to anyone who would listen. (I swear, I actually did have friends in college). But I’m aware of his faults. I don’t think I’ve come across a screenplay of his (“28 Days Later…,” “Sunshine”) that didn’t have third act troubles. So, yes, I walked into “Annihilation,” Garland’s second directorial effort (screenplay also by him) with a good amount of anticipation and a little trepidation. So, how did it turn out? Pretty good, actually.
“Annihilation,” based on the book by James VanderMeer, is a sci-fi film with an intriguing premise that unfolds slowly but surely, at a measured pace. An object falls to earth creating an environmentally destabilized zone in an unspecified coastal area, soon nicknamed The Shimmer. The zone, encased by a roiling, oily, and (you guessed it) shimmering wall is expanding. Expedition teams go into it but never come back. Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist with seven years military experience, is pulled into this mystery when her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), presumed dead a year after entering the zone, suddenly appears at her doorstep confused, unaware of how he got there, and sick. With Kane in the hospital, Lena joins the latest expedition into The Shimmer led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and three other women of various scientific and doctoral backgrounds, in what becomes an increasingly dangerous search for answers.
There’s a lot to like here and a lot to unpack. It’s interesting that the film features a team entirely made up of women. That’s not something you see too often in genre films. I don’t know if that feminine angle really changes the story that much. There still is a certain predictability as the film progresses and (spoilers) the team is picked off by various threats within the zone. Still, I appreciated seeing this material handled by a talented group of women.
Serious thought seems to have been put into the movie; heavy themes are there, ready to be dug into. Aging and sickness (specifically cancer) are obvious ones, but more abstract ideas are dealt with also, metaphysical questions of what “self” actually means and how our memories construct reality.
If you’re expecting answers to these questions, you’re on a fool’s errand. “Annihilation” is built in such a way that the mystery is the allure. It’s the journey, not the destination, as the cliché goes. And what a destination! The ending is appropriately trippy, mostly wordless, but with a score that sounds like a wrestling match between an alien and an orchestra, topped off with some fantastic imagery. Combined, it all kind of, sort of, if you squint, reminded me of the finale from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” though, seriously, don’t let that statement set expectations too high.
It’s not all metaphysical ponderings, though, and I was surprised by the gore in a couple of pivotal moments in the film. Let me be clear, this is not a wall to wall gore fest, but there are a couple of shocking moments that aren’t afraid of showing the red stuff. After one of them, I’m pretty sure I heard somebody dry heaving in the theater.
The other shocking moment is a stalking/attack sequence that proves Garland has some serious genre chops. He does a great job with the scene, maximizing the fear, the scares, and the action release it all ramps up to. Again, I defer to the audience, whose collective heavy breathing afterward seemed to suggest a massive, theater-wide panic attack.
I’m reticent to call the movie great. I’d need to see it a couple more times before I made such a grand pronouncement, before I’m sure of its depth. What if, upon further viewings, I end up pulling back the curtain expecting to find a wizard, only to see Alex Garland standing there, shrugging, “I don’t know.” So, no, with one viewing I’m not comfortable declaring the film’s greatness, but I am comfortable proclaiming its goodness. I do want to see the movie again to find out if my inklings are correct. The fact that I’m looking forward to doing so is a good sign.