Written by Dylan Deppe. Media by Hengyi Chi.
When an alien life form crashes into a lighthouse, it begins emitting a slowly-growing forcefield that mutates the DNA of any lifeform within it. Wishing to learn more about the situation, a secret government organization sends military forces into the area, dubbed the “Shimmer,” only to see no returners. When one man sent in mysteriously returns to his wife, they are both taken to the secret base, where the woman decides to go with a group of other scientific women to learn how to stop the Shimmer.
This movie is visually stunning. The CGI is great, the Shimmer sets are gorgeous, and the creature designs are incredible. The problem is that there aren’t enough critters; if you’ve seen any of the trailers, you’ve seen all but one of the Shimmer creatures. Having more creatures being seen running around the swampy environment would have made the world within the film feel more fleshed out.
The aesthetics, in general, are solid, with the music and sound being quite competent. I love hearing rustic acoustic guitar over the shots of the kitsch-colored Shimmer swamp, even though it’s used too much. I especially love the insane electronica that plays over the psychedelic fever-dream visuals of the third-act finale, greatly realizing the film’s potential. I just wish the film had more music.
There’s also some heady ideas sprinkled throughout the film, for people who dig those kinds of things. Right to knowledge, examination of good and evil, speciesism, the cost of progress, tribal politics, and identity are some of the things hinted at throughout. Director Alex Garland does a good job of slyly communicating all of these themes with a strong sense of visual storytelling. Producer Scott Rudin also deserves all of the applause he can get for allowing themes as threatening as these in a movie as unhip as this one to get made by a big studio.
The film’s biggest theme, though, is self-destruction. This may be the film’s biggest weakness, though. Usually, stories are character-based or narrative-based. This one is a tone poem, which audiences are very unfortunately not into. Unlike other tone poems (“2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Alien,” “Blade Runner 2049″), this one maybe embraces its nihilistic subtext too much. The story even spoils four character’s deaths in the first few minutes. There also is no character or idea to latch onto to keep you engaged; the story starts, goes, and ends in ways that might come across as bewildering, yet embraces how none of it or the characters really matter.
That banal main theme stretches mostly into the Lena character. While some of the other women have specific reasons for going deeper into the Shimmer and undergo some satisfying arcs, Lena undergoes a backward character arc. She goes from feeling more unsure the deeper she goes, to just blindly progressing, until she completely abandons the idea of saving her dying husband. It doesn’t make you want or even feel anything, yet still makes for an interesting watch. Maybe that’s what Garland was going for.
Speaking of characters, the acting is about as good as you’d expect from a cast like this. Oscar Isaac is fantastic, as usual, and left me wanting so much more from him. Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez are great. I wasn’t a fan of Natalie Portman, though. I get that she played a nihilist, but they’re people, not robots; Jennifer Jason Leigh had that down.
Despite a sometimes-bewildering narrative, and an enabling nihilistic tone, interesting characters, gorgeous aesthetics, powerful themes, classy subtlety, and confident direction make “Annihilation” is a modern sci-fi film to be reckoned with, and another fine addition to Garland’s filmography. I’ll give it an 8.9/10.
“Annihilation” is written and directed by Alex Garland, based on a novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, produced by Scott Rudin, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, and Eli Bush. The film stars Natalie Portman (Lena), Gina Rodriguez (Anya), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Ventress), and Tessa Thompson (Josie), and was distributed by Paramount Pictures on February 23, 2018.