REVIEW: Annihilation (2018)

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist and former soldier whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) vanished on a classified assignment. When he unexpectedly returns home suffering from a critical illness, Lena is dragged into his final mission: to infiltrate a mysterious environment known as “the Shimmer”, an expanding zone where the rules of nature no longer apply.

Annihilation is an American film that comes to international audience with no small amount of external baggage. Directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina) and produced by Paramount Pictures, it was unceremoniously sold off to Netflix in much the same manner as Paramount’s earlier 2018 film The Cloverfield Paradox. Such a move provoked disparate reactions: fans of Garland’s films or of the source novel by Jeff Vandermeer condemned it as a corporate betrayal, many cried foul over side-lining a film with a predominantly female cast, and others simply took it as an indication that Paramount had simply made a bad film and were quietly disposing of it in the least costly manner. To be honest, I doubt that any of those position are demonstrably correct. Audiences did not lose a big screen masterpiece, but neither is Annihilation a bad film by any reasonable measure. The bottom line is that it is a well-crafted but frustratingly slow science fiction film, gifted with a strong and talented cast but suffering from unimaginative production design. It is a good film, but not a great one, and absolutely not a particularly commercial one either.

The film is based around a strong and visual premise: that a meteor struck a lighthouse on the American coast, and that some undefined energy has radiated from the impact site to create an impenetrable and growing ‘bubble’. For three years the US government has kept the site secret and secure, and has been sending in both robot drones and human teams to investigate inside the Shimmer. Barring the appearance of Kane (Isaac), no one and no thing has returned. Enter Lena (Portman) to join one more mission, accompanying a group of specialists that will trek through the Shimmer’s interior to reach the lighthouse. Inside, the world has transformed with species of plant and animal leaking their dna into each other and creating a surreal and nightmarish new ecology.

The mission team are great: all women, and both well developed and well performed. Jennifer Jason Leigh is always a welcome addition to a feature film, here playing a somewhat cold and emotionally impenetrable psychologist and team leader. Tessa Thompson plays her character in a vulnerable fashion and in sharp contrast to her previous roles in Creed, Westworld and Thor: Ragnarok. As Lena, Natalie Portman gives a typically exceptional performance, managing to both anchor the film emotionally and feel like an unreliable narrator at the same time.

In terms of production design, however, the film falters. There are strokes of genius of course, although they are best experienced fresh the first time around so it’s best to probably just note ‘the bear’ and leave it at that. Overall the interior of the Shimmer feels just a little underwhelming. There was an opportunity to create some absolutely jaw-dropping landscapes and creatures, but whether due to budgetary limitations or a desire to keep things grounded Garland is conservative in his depictions.

Other elements within the film point to a much more complex story that what initially appears on the screen. There is a tattoo of an ouroboros, for example, that bears paying attention to. Then there is also the question of a missing gap in time early into the expedition that is raised but never resolved. Garland deliberately pulls back from giving direct answers, and while that might frustrate some viewers – particularly during the film’s openly ambiguous ending – it does help to make Annihilation a more interesting film in the long-term. Unfortunately the film’s length works against it to a degree. A long series of flashbacks to Lena and Kane’s marriage provide character definition, but not much plot progression, and an assumed parallel between the ‘annihilation’ of the Shimmer’s purpose and the annihilation of their relationship feels under-developed. The film’s first half drags quite badly, which costs it a fair amount of goodwill in the process.

Annihilation is imperfect, but there is a smart premise behind it and a lot of intriguing detail. While its design elements are sometimes a disappointment, a strong second half and climax make it a worthwhile experience for any science fiction enthusiast.

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