When I saw the words “From the director of Ex Machina” in this film’s trailer, I was stoked. Writer-director Alex Garland created one of my favorite contemporary movies ever. Although many critics dub Ex Machina a “near-masterpiece,” I find it rather profound. The closing scene is both exhilarating and all-encompassing. It brought the whole film together and left me on the edge of my seat. Now, almost three years later, Garland attempts an equally ambitious feat. His sophomore offering adapts a popular novel of the same name. I have not read it myself, but I have heard that Annihilation is a strange and immersive experience. Garland’s version follows Lena, a former soldier turned elite biologist (played by Natalie Portman). She met her husband Kane (played by Oscar Isaac) in the Army, though he is missing at the film’s start. Taking orders from his superiors, Kane entered The Shimmer.
The Shimmer is a mysterious area where all life forms inside gradually merge at the cellular level. No one who has entered it returns. However, Kane is the first to surface, leaving behind the man he once was. He comes home to an emotional Lena. She was without him for 12 months. Yet something felt different. He wasn’t himself. Kane reveals virtually nothing about his stay in the Shimmer. Moments later, he falls deathly ill. Lena rushes him to the hospital. During the ride, police ambush the ambulance. They snag Kane and sedate Lena for further questioning. The biologist wakes in Area X, a government facility stationed just outside the Shimmer. Lena awakens to an aloof psychologist who is heading a team into the danger zone (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh). She informs Lena of her husband’s condition after a string of questions surrounding his departure. Lena knows nothing.
Little is known about The Shimmer. Unfortunately for viewers, Garland sheds little light on the subject. Despite my love for Ex Machina‘s theory of valuable life, its follow-up leaves much to be desired. The premise here is attention-grabbing. Portman gives a compelling performance yet her character lacks true depth. Each recurring role in Annihilation suffers from story-killing motives. Their “I’m just here because my life sucks” motivation makes for an underwhelming cast of by-chance teammates. Dr. Ventress (Leigh) grabs a group of intellects to finish what soldiers started. Their mission was to retrieve data and reach the lighthouse at the center of the quarantined area. While inside, Lena, Ventress, a sober paramedic, friendly anthropologist, and genius physicist witness their cells and bodies mutate. However cool that sounds, the execution here is slightly above average at best. Attention to detail is essential in story such as this.
At times, this film operates smoothly. It routinely follows the three-act structure common in nearly all feature films. In my opinion, it follows this too well, though. Most of the conflict is rather predictable. And the suspense is derailed by superfluous flashbacks. Although the patient build-up of the plot kept me entertained, it did not quench my curiosity. So much of the script talks about the wonders of The Shimmer. Conversely, only a handful of scenes capture its essence. More often than not, conflict and plot points have an “insert here” feel to them. Nevertheless, Garland achieves spine-tingling reactions from his visuals. I won’t spoil those by going in-depth. Just know there are about three scenes in Annihilation worth paying for, though not full price. This is a discount theater movie in my eyes. Due to these scenes I was not upset leaving the theater.
But I did leave scratching my head. The structure of this film needed some alteration. Flashbacks have bugged me while watching movies as of late. This film in particular loads ’em on heavy. They don’t show up every scene, but they hinder the story’s progression nonetheless. Annihilation opens with some kind of scientist conglomerate interrogating Lena. In other words, the whole movie is a flashback. That was a mistake. If this film were to flow in chronological order, its element of suspense would have a true foundation. Rather than piecing the puzzle together (which goes unsolved, by the way), Lena’s journey should have been our own. I felt detached from the characters and the plot as a whole because of this. Key dialogue moments, where emotion is meant to be poignant or courageous, are replaced by “I don’t know”.
You mean to tell me you have the keys to this story and the best closing line you think of is “I don’t know”? I gotta problem with that. The setting felt like a slightly modified swamp-slash-rainforest instead of a strange and unfathomable new world. Visually, the effects here are mostly impressive. The genetically mutated creatures stood out among the rest. A half-bear, half-demon-looking thing takes the lives of two team members. Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s sound design is both awe-inspiring and underwhelming. This hit-or-miss result embodies the overall arc of the film. The bear’s ghoulish roar gave me chills. Additionally, my jaw dropped towards the climax. When Lena reaches the lighthouse, she discovers a terrifying reflective alien. It mirrors her every move and eventually becomes her. Before that happens, though, the alien’s creation sequence is scored by one of the most immersive audio experiences I’ve ever heard.
However, outside of those two triumphs, Annihilation offers little in terms of sonic atmosphere. Sugary guitars paste on top of scenes like an off-brand Band-Aid. They pay homage to the song which played in a flashback between the husband and wife. Be that as it may, they sound out of place. A bulk of the soundtrack here does not heighten the mood of its respective scenes. Again, The Shimmer acts more like an ordinary jungle-type setting with a few formulaic pit stops along the way. We know Lena makes it out in the end. Thus the subsequent bread crumbs should be compelling enough to negate that knowledge. Alas, Garland’s take on the Annihilation story bit off more than it could chew. Sometimes artistic ambiguity only leads to a hollow feeling upon exiting the theater. Despite some camera and effects magic, the Ex Machina creator fails to reproduce similar sci-fi brilliance.