Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (good)
Director: Alex Garland
Cast: Natalie Portman, Benedict Wong, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson
Synopsis: U.S. army biologist Lena uncovers a deadly menace, her husband returns from the dead, and an expanding alien zone dubbed ‘the shimmer’ offers the only salvation for Lena’s returned but ailing husband.
Visually striking, Annihilation has style but lacks originality. Adapted from the self-titled novel, Annihiliation’s bones originate in The Strugatsky Brothers’ ‘Roadside Picnic’. Both stories share an unknown alien zone and mysterious epicentre attracting the flawed and the outcast. Annihilation is an enjoyable but predictable two hour stint that retreads The Strutgatsky Brothers’ seminal novel. Annihilation has trappings of potential; the shimmer is an eloquently bleak depiction of a world devoid of man and the all-female expedition Lena joins hints at a deeper mystery. Yet Annihilation concedes uniqueness for comfort in its final act, peaked by an ambiguous ending that tramples over Lena’s arc. Worse still is that the shimmer is a strange plane, but its vibrancy denies Annihiliation of the insipid eerieness marking Roadside Picnic.
Annihilation begins well: a slow-burn pace gradually introduces Lena, the shimmer and Lena’s crew, teasing out the audience’s intrigue. The all-female expedition accompanying Lena consists of brilliant actresses who match Natalie Portman. Tessa Thompson is the polar opposite of the brash Valkeryie she played in Thor: Ragnarok as introverted physicist Josie. Jennifer Jason Leigh is equally impressive as psychiatrist and mission administrator Dr. Ventress. Perceiving everything with detached indifference, Ventress is akin to an automaton, at times acting with bravery while her reactions can exude a menace matching ‘the shimmer’. Ventress’ ambivalent nature and Leigh’s performance steal the focus away from Natalie Portman’s Lena. Initially Lena is a decent protagonist, but the audience’s sympathy for her character is damaged by dream sequences that reveal her nastier side. Annihilation is indirectly narrated by Lena, who is shown in the future, having survived entering the shimmer. Lena’s confirmed existence before Annihilation even unfolds denies tangible investment into her character because no matter the bad things that befall her, the audience already knows that Lena’s fate is secure. The dreams negate Lena’s motivation for entering ‘the shimmer’, thereby flattening Lena’s character into something two-dimensional.
Annihilation’s efforts to create complexity muddy aspects of the film which would have suited greater simplicity, such as Lena just being an easily relatable woman attempting to save her husband. The result is that Annihilation can feel too clever, with tid-bits sprinkled into the film with no explanation. Unlike Blade Runner whose twists and clues weave into the plot and hint at a deeper meaning, Annihilation is riddled with details left unanswered that feel like forgotten additions. Annihilation can be engrossing when it’s visual clues are developed but Alex Garland’s approach to them is scatter-brained. Annihilation’s plot is exacerbated by intermittently lazy writing. Key points are delivered by a supporting character just stating them in dialogue, with nothing appearing on screen to either convey or develop these ideas. The worst is when one of Lena’s crew simply states that every team member is flawed and then lists their problems. In the next hour nothing proves these flaws, none of the crew crack under the shimmer and turn to their demons for solace.
There was an opportunity once the team entered the shimmer where Annihilation could have transcended into a great sci-fi film. Awaking in her tent Lena goes outside to find that everyone is unaware of the past two weeks which have passed since crossing into the shimmer. In this scene, the shimmer was alive, a force that was toying with the team just like everyone else who had entered. Sadly this idea is never developed upon, with Annihilation relying on a few monsters and found footage instead of building up the shimmer. The film does scare but it never creates the haunting otherworldliness of Roadside Picnic.
Annihilation is still an enjoyable sci-fi flick, but in highsight it does not have the complexity that would make it eminently rewatchable like the genre’s greats.
By Saul Shimmin
For the trailer, see below: