Updated: Feb 6, 2020
Annihilation is an ambitious, fascinating, complex, beautiful and frustrating science fiction film. At times it is absolutely mesmerizing. At others, I was not entirely sure that writer/director Alex Garland was successfully conveying his vision. But it is always captivating and well worth at least one viewing for anyone interested in a smart, dark, science fiction movie.
The film stars three-time Oscar nominee (and one-time winner) Natalie Portman as Lena, a biologist and teacher at Johns Hopkins who served in the army. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac, co-star of Garland’s excellent Ex Machina), is sent on a military assignment and does not return. She assumes the worst until he shows up in their house a year later. But something seems different about him. Soon, Lena and Kane are grabbed by the organization responsible for his most recent mission. It turns out he was sent to a place called Area X, a mysterious space no one had ever returned from before, surrounded by a strange shimmering barrier. Lena volunteers herself for the next expedition, being led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), so she can figure out what happened to her husband. More than that I will not reveal.
What I will talk about is the look and feel of the film. Area X is both creepy and beautiful. There is something not quite right about that place, like nature itself is working against the intruders. The way flowers grow makes for a fantastic and unsettling visual. And then there is the lighthouse, the central feature of Area X. Lighthouses are supposed to be a beacon of protection for ships, but this one may not be so safe as it calls to those trying to discover the secrets of this land.
Though the area may look familiar, it does not feel familiar. There is the constant fear of a threat, even when there is no reason to think there is one. The music (composed by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury) is one reason why. It is ominous and foreboding at just the right moments. As is the cinematography by Rob Hardy. Somehow, every space inside Area X feels like there is a danger lurking inside it. Whether it is the open fields or the military base they make camp in, nothing looks or feels like a safe space.
That seems to have been the goal of Alex Garland and it is one that is achieved very successfully. Annihilation is extremely compelling from start to finish. Garland has made a science fiction film that uses its premise to actually be about something. Yes, there are thriller elements, but the mysteries mainly take place inside the characters minds and, even more so, inside Area X. However, his attempts to explain Area X and what is happening there are not quite as successful. The ending came off as a bit of a letdown because of that and did not live up to the intriguing premise. The revelations are too easy and unconvincing. It may have been better if he had not tried to provide an explanation for this strange phenomenon. As is, viewers are already going to debate the answers to the questions this story raises.
Annihilation (108 minutes not including the end credits) is an adaptation of the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer (the first book in a trilogy). It is not a faithful adaptation of the novel, which is not surprising since the book as written is not cinematic. Parts of the setup are similar as are a couple of moments during the expedition and some of the personal details of the characters (specifically Lena). And tonally it feels like it exists in the same universe. Garland did punch it up a bit with a couple of action scenes and some more specific character details (the characters are not referred to by name in the book). Though I am sure that this film will be divisive, it is more easily accessible than the book in that the protagonist is a little more relatable and the action is made a little clearer (plus Garland makes more of an effort to make events easily understandable than VanderMeer does). But, having read the book, you can see how Garland arrived at some of his ideas.
Overall, Annihilation is a fascinating and thought-provoking exercise that does not quite deliver on its promise. Or maybe that is just me. While watching the film, I got so caught up in my own expectations, perhaps that is why I was a tad disappointed as the end credits began to roll. There are certainly a lot of positives here. The visuals are impressive, the pacing is great and Natalie Portman gives a really good performance. Additionally, between this and Ex Machina, Alex Garland seems to be turning himself into a really interesting voice in contemporary sci-fi cinema. Annihilation is about 75% a great film and 25% an overly ambitious head-scratcher. But that 75% is enough to make me want to see it again. Maybe the next time, I will get a better grasp on the other 25%.
3¾ out of 5
Natalie Portman as Lena
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr. Ventress
Tessa Thompson as Josie Radek
Gina Rodriguez as Anya Thorensen
Tuva Novotny as Cass Sheppard
Oscar Isaac as Kane
Screenplay and Directed by Alex Garland