4 out of 5 stars.
Often, the best science fiction films are the ones that don’t give you all the answers, but rather give you more to puzzle out on your own long after leaving the theater. Such is the case with Alex Garland’s second directorial effort, “Annihilation,” based on the first book in a trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist and former Army soldier who is drawn into an expedition following the sudden return of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who disappeared while on a top secret mission a year ago.
This expedition involves traveling inside Area X, otherwise known as the Shimmer, which started expanding over a national park after a strange object hit a lighthouse. Nobody knows exactly what the Shimmer is or what is inside it, because none of the previous expeditions into it have ever returned. Kane is the first individual to emerge from the Shimmer, albeit seriously ill and with little recollection of what happened in there, so Lena volunteers to join the next team, led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), along with paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie (Tess Thompson), and anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny). Each woman is a specialist in her field, and each is, as Cass puts it, “damaged goods.”
One of the wonderful things about “Annihilation” is that it puts the women at the front of the story. The men are few and far between, with characters like Kane primarily existing to drive Lena and the other women’s stories. Portman’s courageous performance carries the film, but each lady is given ample screen time, with Rodriguez stealing scenes by showing a tough side of her we haven’t seen before. All of the women are great, with even the initially irritating, mumbling performance by Jason Leigh as Ventress growing on me as the film reached its conclusion. Each woman has a reason for going into the Shimmer, but interestingly, Lena is the least likeable; you could even say she’s selfish, as she wants to try to save her husband mainly as penance for the wrongs she did him in the past, putting her teammates at risk in the process. We get just enough pieces of Lena’s past and snapshots of her marriage to Kane to understand her, told in brief flashbacks spread throughout the film. On top of the flashbacks, Garland uses a framing device, opening the film with Lena being interrogated by people back at the Area X base about her experience inside the Shimmer, so we know right off the bat that Lena makes it out alive, while it is heavily implied that the others do not. This method of telling the story is one of the few things about “Annihilation” that doesn’t work so well; it doesn’t create much more suspense, and the film often flips back to the interrogation scenes at inopportune moments, when we are so absorbed in watching the action inside the Shimmer that it’s jarring to be suddenly pulled out of it.
However, Garland’s overall writing and direction is very solid. “Annihilation” has almost the opposite feel of his previous film, “Ex-Machina;” whereas the former is very stripped down, with the latter Garland goes all out displaying both the beauty and the horror in the Shimmer. Many times the beauty and the horror overlap in unique, disturbing ways (kudos to the visual effects team on that). He also does a good job pacing the film and creating an increasing sense of dread as the film progresses. The intensity of the mutations inside the Shimmer, which range from colorful plants to fearsome beasts, increases as the characters journey closer to the lighthouse, the mystery of just what happened to Kane and the previous team looming over their heads and the audience’s consciousness. Just when you think you know what could be happening inside the Shimmer, Garland throws us another curveball in the climax. This film is a lot less literal than his examination of artificial intelligence in “Ex-Machina,” leaving the audience with a lot to unpack, and a lot of things that will likely make more sense upon multiple viewings and closer examination. You could make the argument that Garland is just trying to be vaguely profound with this movie, giving us a lot to think about without any rhyme or reason behind that. I don’t think that’s true at all though. I think Garland, an experienced screenwriter before even getting behind the camera, knows exactly what journey he wants the viewer to go on—it’s up to us to take up the challenge.
Runtime: 115 minutes. Rated R.