There is a scene midway through Annihilation, the latest science fiction expedition from Ex Machina writer-director Alex Garland, where a woman gets yanked off of the ground and rag-dolled by what appears to be a half-bear, half-warthog creature. It’s all right, though. We already knew this was coming.
The woman is one of five tasked with venturing into the “Shimmer,” an enclosed, alien space that crash landed on Earth near a lighthouse and began slowly expanding. Inside the Shimmer, the DNA of different species converge in ways that do not fit with the laws of biology. Plants of different species can stem from the same branch or grow into human shapes. Crocodiles can evolve to bear shark’s teeth. And humans experience rapid internal shifts, including their organs and fingerprints shifting before their eyes.
This expedition is one of many that has been carried out within the Shimmer, which has been present and under study for about three years when Lena (Natalie Portman) discovers it. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), who mysteriously returns home unannounced and then is immediately subject to massive hemorrhaging, was a soldier on the last expedition.
With Kane seemingly on his death bed, Lena decides to enter the fray with psychologist and apparent leader of the Shimmer operation Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and three others (Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny). But the Shimmer is not a place that people get out of alive, or, at the very least, they don’t get out sane.
Garland’s Annihilation is more of a sci-fi experience than it is a film with a mind-blowing plot or well-drawn characters. As fascinating as its premise is, none of the aforementioned characters read as characters. In the first scene of the film, most of these five are presumed or confirmed dead. It is as if the film is warning us not to look for any depth of character in anyone but Portman’s Lena.
Indeed, the expedition of people are more akin to puzzle pieces than characters. Each one serves her purpose in the narrative and then are is as cannon fodder for horror-thriller theatrics. Even Lena, though, does not present herself as a compelling heroin.
Portman plays her with a stoic distance, eliminating emotional responses from an alien situation that would almost certainly require them. The character is meant to have emotion through backstory, which would read as a lazy, tacked-on tactic if it worked. But it doesn’t. Her relationship with Kane, which is meant to serve as her entire motivation, is established in one rote flashback scene.
Kane tickles her in bed and they joke, and we are meant to buy their loving relationship in spite of everything else we see from the two of them. And there is plenty there to debunk any notion that their relationship was sound enough to warrant Lena risking her life and sanity.
In the present tense, Lena serves as the audience surrogate. The other women in the crew explicate to her to ensure that the audience is kept abreast of need-to-know information. Otherwise, Lena is an empty vessel from which we are meant to receive a complex emotional catharsis in the film’s climax. The math there just doesn’t add up.
In a way, though, this overt lack of character can work to the film’s strengths. Annihilation is a heavily-structured science fiction landscape, sprawling with fantastical imagery and questions begging to be answered. The characters in the fray are merely pawns in this structure. Viewing the film in this way makes it emotionally stilted to the point of being nothing more than a science lesson from Professor Acid Trip, but it keeps the film from looking like a bloated mess.
Because, like it or not, the visual immensity of this film is jaw-dropping. Just like with Ex Machina, Garland crafts a world that is entirely insular but endlessly immersive. With Annihilation, however, he also expands his scope exponentially, launching ambitions to the sky with wax wings that glimmer with lens flares.
The imagery on display is the clearest sign of this ambition. The entire world inside the Shimmer is teaming with gorgeous visual tableaux and grisly horror-sci-fi creations. The visual effects work exceeds anything that has come out in recent years, perhaps being the biggest technical achievement in fantasy computer imagery sense the The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
These visual splendors are captured with a beautiful attention to lighting schemes. While the lighting initially feels off-puttingly artificial, it fits the fantastical world of the film quite fittingly. And the pairing of visuals with lighting makes the Shimmer one of the better fantasy worlds put to screen.
The technical front of the film is not without its flaws. The score, for one, is wildly inconstant. There are three or four different score cues in the film. One is introduced early: this plucky, open-tuned acoustic guitar rhythm. Then there are more traditional thriller cues when things go bump in the night. At one point, if memory serves, there are some orchestral strings that flourish out of the ether. Then there is the intense, warbling electronic cues that were found in the film’s trailer.
Each one of these music cues, on their own, serve the film pragmatically, and most of them sound quite good. The acoustic sounds have an interesting stripped down quality to them that contrast the science-fiction atmosphere nicely. And the electronic score is deafening and utterly discomfiting. Together, however, these noises all read jumbled and erratic.
Not unlike the plot of the film. Each piece of intrigue, each question that is posed as the characters move deeper into the Shimmer, is fascinating and keeps you wanting more. This desire to understand the world keeps the languid pace from feeling like a quagmire. In fact, it makes this languid pace come off a bit eerie.
But as you watch, and you start to presume that this is one of those the-more-you-see-the-less-you-know films, certain pieces of information are dropped on you. The signposts are made clear. Then the climax hits. You may be floored by its staging—this macabre choreographed mirror dance that is incomparably enrapturing—but it resolves itself in a way where there is no longer anything compelling in the questions that led us here.
With the film’s final shot, questions produce the answers that you expected, and the world of Annihilation becomes, in retrospect, a sterile science-fiction environment. Unlike with Ex Machina and the best cerebral sci-fi flicks, the staying power is lost. The deeply conceptual and existential ponderings give way to less fruitful full-circle conclusions.
See, the concept of the Shimmer is fascinating. There is a question of whether the Shimmer is planted on Earth to do what the title suggests, to be this cancerous parasite that will wipe out humanity, or whether it may be simply a stepping stone in Earth’s evolution, a benefactor for positive biological growth. This is a compelling question.
The film squanders this conceptual framework. Perhaps this is an ill-result of condensing the book into a reasonable feature runtime. But the film does not expound on the intrigue of the Shimmer. It bluntly presents vague philosophical arguments and then leaves them on the table. The arguments are intriguing, but exceedingly superficial.
The conundrum with Annihilation is how to reconcile the poor narrative construction and the sublime technical craft at work here. The film is itself like the image it is so found of repeating: the splitting cell. The movie, halved, is equal parts resounding achievement and unfortunate trainwreck. It is a lush, gorgeous film that Garland crafts magnificently. But it is not a film that is going to scratch that sci-fi itch hard enough where it stops being a nuisance; if anything, it tickles the itch and leaves it all the itchier.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)