“Annihilation” Movie Review


     It’s now become clear director Alex Garland prefers to stay within the bounds of the more cerebral science fiction realm, avoiding the kind of spectacle normally defining the genre and instead creating the kind of stories that will have you debating about them long after you leave the theater.  Garland’s debut feature, 2014’s “Ex Machina”, explored the moral and ethical issues surrounding life like artificial intelligence, while telling the story of a scientist attempting to create a being whose emotional characteristics cannot be differentiated from that of a human.  His latest foray into the genre, “Annihilation”, leads the director on a similar path, but results in a completely different experience entirely.  There are moments in “Annihilation” that are completely intoxicating.  As if the director had weaved a story so compelling and incredibly well thought out that you want nothing more than to continue down the proverbial rabbit hole to learn exactly what the secrets are behind the mysterious Shimmer.  The entire experience is engrossing, as long as you are prepared to think as you absorb it all.

     In the opening scenes, we see a meteor hit the earth near a lighthouse, causing a colorful flash as it impacts.  But then suddenly, we move forward in time, meeting Lena (Natalie Portman), who is sitting in a small room being interrogated by a man in a protective suit.  She appears battered and worn.  As if she has recently experienced something traumatizing.  The mood Garland has created indicates a woman who has an incredible, yet potentially dangerous story to tell.  One in which a gaggle of other people are lined up behind glass in protective suites to hear.   We then flash back to a time in the recent past, as we learn Lena’s husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), went missing more than a year ago after being sent on a classified military mission of which he appeared hesitant and anxious.  But then back in present day, while Lena is upstairs re-painting the bedroom they once shared, Kane walks in, having no explanation as to how he got there or where he was for the past year.

     All of this must’ve been strange to the unnamed powers that be (The Military? The Government?), since Lena and Kane are taken against their will by a heavily armed tactical team to a government facility that sits within visual distance of what they refer to as the Shimmer, a colorful translucent wall of light that surrounds the area where the meteor originally hit and continues to grow at an exponential rate.  An all encompassing tone of dread seems to encapsulate the research facility as Lena wakes up in a hospital bed still nauseated from the sedative she had apparently been given.  Looking over her is Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a creepy individual who speaks in monotone and projects a strange melancholy vibe to all she comes in contact with.  Ventress doesn’t give Lena the answers she’s looking for, but does indicate Kane has fallen into a coma and is barely clinging to life.

     Ventress then begins to fill Lena in on the Shimmer and what they believe it may be or actually how little they know at that point.  She divulges that several groups of scientists and military personnel have entered, but none have come out alive.  Of course, that’s exactly where Kane abruptly arriving back on Lena’s door step triggered the reaction it did, but something is terribly wrong with him now, thus meaning there are still no answers.  Ultimately, Ventress determines she will lead another group into the Shimmer and hopefully have the smarts and wherewithal to actually return.  To put all this in perspective, keep in mind this is clearly an alien form of some kind that has invaded Earth and seems to be growing slowly.  Ventress mentions the government has masked the incident in the press as an ongoing toxic disaster, but they know sooner or later word will eventually leak.

     Lena, a biologist and Army veteran, asks to join the group Ventress will lead, which includes Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny), and Josie (Tessa Thompson), who are introduced in the short lead up to the group’s mission.  Garland moves quickly to this point, as the mystery box incorporated into the film’s plot is all about what’s on the other side.  A lush and colorful setting awaits as the team moves through the Shimmer and arrives within a world where much of what they see makes no sense according to their individual scientific backgrounds.  As created by production designer Mark Digby and Art Director Denis Schnegg, the woods that lead to the lighthouse seem harmless at first.  That is until Lena notices plants and vegetation that have somehow begun to mutate together and grow as separate species from the same branches.  Traditional wild animal life has also been effected, causing some of them to become as aggressive as the species they are mutating with.  This obviously presents a danger to the group as they move closer to their destination and a series of encounters with some of these species prove deadly.

     There’s no getting around the obvious comparisons to some horror’s greatest films such as “The Thing” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, but that’s not to say “Annihilation” isn’t a wholly satisfying and original addition to the genre.  Garland’s screenplay, adapted from Jeff Vandermeer’s novel, excels in giving us distinct personalities of each character, only to have us watch as this alien world somehow changes them entirely.  Because each of these women come from an academic background as well, there are plenty of scientific theories debated amongst them as they encounter odd and unexplainable happenings during their journey.  The pace of the film is slow and brooding at times, and there is definitely good reason to focus on the smaller details since much of what occurs early becomes crucial later.  The performances are solid with each actress providing their own unsettling take on the story which seems to evolve continually all the way to the final shot.  But it’s Garland’s vision of the material that stands out, as the sophomore director’s effort here feels at times like he is channeling Stanley Kubrick or Ridley Scott, but then in a blink of an eye veers off into a world clearly all his own.  GRADE: B+