Annihilation: A flawed and unsettling work of surreal science fiction

March 2, 2018

There is a part of me that loves Alex Garland’s “Annihilation.” The problem is, that is not the part of me that is a very good critic. “Annihilation” skirts the line between pretentious and obnoxious, and ends up falling firmly on the side of the former. A film that is completely committed to its themes, “Annihilation” is not as good as any of its contemporaries, and yet, perhaps in spite of myself, I found myself liking it.

“Annihilation” is the second film directed by Garland, a longtime screenwriter who made a name for himself writing movies like “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine” (both directed by Danny Boyle, Garland’s longtime collaborator). Garland’s directing debut was the excellent “Ex Machina,” in 2015, a tense, provocative piece of science fiction that turned a lot of heads and opened a lot of doors for Garland. Now armed with a bigger budget, cast and scale, “Annihilation” is certainly bigger than “Ex Machina,” but it is not better.

Part of what made “Ex Machina” such a success was how weird and unsettling the movie felt, and “Annihilation” boasts a similar off-putting vibe. The film follows Lena (Natalie Portman), an ex-military biology professor at Johns Hopkins, forced to venture into an area known as “The Shimmer” after her special forces husband Kane (a muted Oscar Isaac), unexpectedly returns home. The Shimmer is a top-secret, potentially extraterrestrial bubble that is expanding throughout northern Florida and the source of Kane’s mysterious illness. It is a compelling set-up, bolstered by Garland’s style of direction.

The Shimmer itself is an aesthetic triumph, illustrated by an odd combination of lens flares that make the whole world look like a soap bubble. It’s not especially pretty–at least at first–but thanks in part to some engaging production design the bleached-out look of the movie grew on me. I liked that everything within the world of The Shimmer looked consistent, and again reflecting the “off” vibe of the film, and there is a sequence about two-thirds of the way through that is downright terrifying, easily the best creature/monster design since 2008’s “Cloverfield.”

The problems instead lie in the characterization. The movie definitely reminded me how much I like Natalie Portman as an actress (she can carry a weak script pretty well, just look at the “Star Wars” prequels). Portman’s been pretty absent from the limelight since her Oscar win for 2011’s “Black Swan” (not counting “Jackie,”, which I do not think anybody watched), and she does what she can with the material she’s given. Isaac is rarely on-screen, but the real problem is that Garland botches the relationship between Portman and Isaac. It is not clear if we are supposed to be rooting for these characters to be together or not, which is partially because the narrative gets so muddled. First, there is a frame narrative (with Portman being interrogated about her time in The Shimmer). Afterwards, there are also flashbacks to Kane and Lena’s relationship before the existence of The Shimmer. As I said in my “Molly’s Game Review,” I am all for non-linear narratives, but here it feels like Garland’s reach exceeds his grasp, making it difficult to find the movie’s emotional center. The most engaging part of “Annihilation” is The Shimmer, however, flash forwards and flashbacks constantly remove the audience from the interesting aspects of the movie.

Character problems persist throughout the film. On her mission into The Shimmer, Lena is joined by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), who makes a strong impression in early scenes and successfully emulates that unsettling vibe but quickly fades into the scenery, Josie (a criminally underused Tessa Thompson) and Anya ( Gina Rodriguez of “Jane The Virgin”). The issue is that “Annihilation” pretends to be “hard sci-fi” in the vein of movies like “Arrival” or “The Martian,” but the characters do not really act like scientists. In a film like “Arrival,” which takes a very similar approach to its science fiction conceit, the scientists always make seemingly logical and rational decisions, which you would expect scientists to make. With “Annihilation,” there is not any of that internal consistency, and the “surrealist” explanations the film makes to justify the character’s actions are weak at best. In other words, Natalie Portman acts like a scientist sometimes, but in other instances she can make really stupid, unrealistic choices.

The ending, is bold, unique, beautiful … and is sure to drive some viewers up the wall.While it is sure to anger some, however, the third act is probably my favorite part of the film. The movie has a very J.J. Abrams Mystery Box conception, but in this case, the ending is satisfying (at least for me).

Again, I am left grappling with my own subjectivity. “Annihilation” has a lot of what I personally like: I am a fan of Garland’s style, and I like a lot of the cast, but I have to recognize a lot of the glaring flaws. The dialogue can be poor, the non-linear narrative hurts the film and the hard sci-fi that is promised is noticeably absent. Nevertheless, I am a big enough fan of the atmosphere, production design and themes (that I cannot really delve into for fear of spoiling) that I would still recommend it. Of recent sci-fi fare, “Annihilation” ranks between “Interstellar” and “Arrival” in terms of quality, and it offers something that is engaging and different. Maybe that is enough, at least, it was for me.

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