When Alex Garland made his directorial debut with Ex Machina (2014), sci-fi fans and cinephiles alike marveled at the director’s tightly knit screenplay and uncanny attention to detail. Ex Machina was a total success and the result was Garland being granted carte blanche for his next project: Annihilation (2018) – a science fiction horror film adapted from the book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. In the movie, Natalie Portman stars as biologist Lena, whose military husband (Oscar Isaac) goes missing after embarking on a secret mission. A year later, Lena’s husband miraculously returns, acting strange and spitting up blood – not a good look. Soon enough, Lena enlists to embark on the same journey her husband made into a psychedelic zone known as Area X. Area X looks like the inside of a kaleidoscope and whatever goes in never comes out – except in this case, Lena’s husband. Three women join Lena on the mission; Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the head of the operation who has sent team after team into Area X to no avail, deciding to go in herself; Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), an EMT; Radek (Tessa Thompson), a scientist with a self-abuse history; and Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), the most optimistic of the group. The foursome embarks through what they call “The Shimmer” into Area X, en route to the center of this continuously-spreading area to find out the source and if they can stop it.
First and foremost, I feel like I need to get this out of the way because it goes without saying: the movie is gorgeous to look at from start to finish. It almost appears to be a purgatory where Heaven and Hell come together. Even Lena goes as far as to describe something as looking horrific, yet maintaining its beauty. The reason I want to get this praise out of the way is because, to me, it’s the only thing that kept me from falling asleep during the movie. The film drags a ton in the second act as Lena and her team scour Area X and encounter beautiful and strange things. By the end of the movie, there is little to no payoff for any of the characters, not even Portman/Lena who is the protagonist. To be quite honest, I’m getting a little tired of “slow burn” being a valid excuse for a movie’s pacing. There are movies that burn slow with an engaging-enough script to keep the audience’s attention; movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Taxi Driver (1976), Unforgiven (1992), Blade Runner (1982), and The Thing (1982) all use slow burn to their advantage and maintain good visuals and good characters at their forefronts. Annihilation shines with the former and seriously lacks the latter. We don’t learn a lot about these characters, and yet the movie tries to build up stakes so that the audience will have some sort of meaningful reaction if a character goes missing or they hear a sudden noise in the forest. Much to my disdain, the movie focuses more on the story at hand than the characters in that world. I’ve said it a million times over and I’ll stay true to my word: I don’t like movies where story drives story, I like movies where character drives story. Annihilation starts on the right foot and puts Lena’s relationship with her husband at the focus, but by the time Lena is knee-deep in Area X, you forget why she’s even there.
I can see people calling this movie bold – swinging for the fences by asking the big questions about biology, consciousness, life, etc… It tries to be a “tour de force” but in the process it loses cohesiveness. I think Alien (1979) is a perfect example of a movie about a crew who encounter something not-of-our-world, in which the characters are relatable enough to inspire empathy from the audience. In Annihilation, I think I cared about two of the characters and one of them was definitely because she is played by Tessa Thompson, whom I love. People may walk out of the movie satisfied because of the visuals they experience (the score is nerve-inducing, as well, in the best way), but I don’t think a “well-shot” movie gets a free pass for everything else. I’ve made my own short films that I think “look” great but there’s more to be said about my lackadaisical writing and attention to pacing.
I actually enjoyed the ending more than I thought I would after spending an hour and fifty minutes wondering why I don’t care about anyone I see on screen. The conclusion plays out like a silent film for the better part of twenty minutes and finally answers some of the questions I had been asking since the first ten minutes of the movie. But even as the film comes to a surprisingly good close, a number of loose-ends left me scratching my head as to why they weren’t resolved and why they were in the movie to begin with. I can see people praising these threads as moments open to interpretation, effectively putting director Alex Garland in the same breath as Christopher Nolan when they ask, “Is he a visionary or just pretentious?” Much like in Nolan films, these “loose threads” will be seen as genius by people who adore Annihilation and as plot holes for people who don’t enjoy it as much.
Movies should absolutely reach for the stars. It’s how we get the modern art think-pieces we have today, to admire and aspire to create. However, when going so bold, you still need to be concise with your ideas and your script probably needs about 10 re-writes to make sure, even if it’s ambivalent or “mind-melting,” that it’s still cohesive. If you enjoy heady concepts and big questions with no definitive answers, you may like this movie. However, if you are looking for characters to root for and a cause to get behind, maybe go see Black Panther (2018) again.
It’s beautiful to look at, and there’s no denying the skills of Natalie Portman and the rest of the talent. The issue is that the script doesn’t let them flex their acting range and director Alex Garland chooses to leave his audience with more questions than answers. Just because Annihilation is pretty, doesn’t mean it’s flawless. It’s only Garland’s sophomore feature, I wouldn’t say it’s time to cancel him just yet. But this is Strike One for me.