February 23, 2018 Annihilation (Movie Review)
“I don’t know,” biologist Lena (Natalie Portman: Black Swan 2010, Jackie 2016) answers an interrogator demanding more about the source of the mysterious Shimmer. In a hazy state, Lena tells the tale of Annihilation which makes it way to theaters everywhere on Friday, February 23, 2018 through Paramount Pictures. The second film both written and directed by Alex Garland (28 Days Later 2002, Ex Machina 2015), Annihilation is based on the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer, and is Science Fiction for the thinking moviegoer. That in mind, does Lena’s quest for answers stack up?
When Army man Kane (Oscar Isaac: Ex Machina 2015, Star Wars: The Last Jedi 2017), Lena’s husband whom she thought dead, returns home disoriented and near death from a mission into The Shimmer, Lena decides she owes her love an answer as to his condition.
She volunteers to take an expedition into The Shimmer with psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh: Single White Female 1992, The Hateful Eight 2015), Physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson: Creed 2015, Thor: Ragnarok 2017), Paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez: Deepwater Horizon 2016, Ferdinand 2017), and Anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny: Eat Pray Love 2010, Borg McEnroe 2017). Aside from her biology credentials, Lena is also ex-military, having served in the Army alongside Kane.
The Shimmer itself is a creeping, eerie, gaseous mass. An environmental disaster caused by a meteor crash, the Shimmer spreads and covers more of the world with its bubble-like viscosity every hour. And no one who has entered has ever returned – save for Kane. Lena, Dr. Ventress and the others will finally attempt to do what others before them could not and figure out what, and perhaps why, The Shimmer is.
Annihilation is a cerebral picture, a mystery reflecting both science fiction and body horror. Much of the mystery surrounding The Shimmer is intentionally (and nobly) left vague. The audience is given only pieces about the women making the journey. They are all broken in their own ways, but unfortunately they are somewhat thinly sketched, save more or less for Lena.
This is Lena’s story and it becomes something of a reflection of her as a person. Her and Kane have a history. They are a couple who have had their highs and their lows. Lena’s guilt about Kane drives her to act. The less said about the specifics the better, but Garland is trying to tell a very human story turned upside down by these extraordinarily strange circumstances. And what about these circumstances?
There is ample time to take in the weirdness of The Shimmer. As Lena and the others traverse to the point of impact (a lighthouse), the landscape is at once familiar yet strange. A menagerie of overgrowth and co-evolving plants and animals have taken over abandoned houses, hills and barracks. There is a colorful calm to it all and a quiet irresistibility to The Shimmer’s power. It is definitely a place that changes a person upon entry. Rob Hardy’s (Boy A 2007, Ex Machina 2015) cinematography allows this mutating world to breathe – think Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker.
Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score is as much an evolving animal as the actual Shimmer animals. Annihilation’s music ranges from familiar acoustic guitar and vocal mixes to abstract, ambient noise. As Lena and the others progress into stranger terrain, so the music accompanies them and the audience. The performances are uniformly great. All the women have fatalistic attitudes. Perhaps they know on some level what awaits in The Shimmer. Cass and Lena build dread in conversation about the damaged women they are with (themselves included). Jennifer Jason Leigh and Gina Rodriguez are standouts among a great cast.
It is a shame, then, that some things do not work as well. For example, Mark Digby’s production design unfortunately is noticeably unconvincing in places. And the ever-capable Alex Garland, game for the effort, finds himself on some rather unwieldy terrain not unlike his protagonists. It is like the implications of the story are just beyond what is communicable on screen.
Lena is not the only character to say “I don’t know.” That may seem to imply there is fertile interpretive ground here for those thinking viewers. The situation comes across as too thin, though. It feels like a way to get around the dark implications of what Lena thinks The Shimmer may mean; especially with regards to her biological career researching cancer.
This is not to say that Annihilation is a failure; far from it. It is definitely an absolutely watchable film that will have some viewers considering deeply what they have seen. This is always a plus. But while Garland and his team from Ex Machina have crafted a creepy and involving world, their great effort falls a bit short here. Consequently, CrypticRock gives Annihilation 3 out of 5 stars.