Director Alex Garland’s follow-up to Ex Machina is the proverbial sophomore slump
Annihilation, the new film from writer/director Alex Garland (Ex Machina), gets snared in the trap that snags so many science fiction films. An intriguing premise gives way to an exploration of the enigmatic circumstances the characters find themselves in … and everything promptly gets lost in oceans of CG effects and non-sensical plot developments. The first act presents dozens of questions — some factual, some thematic. And ultimately, the movie offers no real answers. The finale essentially tells the audience, Hey, this is science fiction. Weird shit happens.
For its first hour, Annihilation plays better as a horror film than a sci-fi opus. An otherworldly zone has sprung up in the United States, and it’s slowly expanding, consuming more real estate daily. Teams of soldiers and scientists have gone into “The Shimmer”, but none have ever returned. A group of five determined women, each with her own motive for undertaking a likely suicide mission, enter The Shimmer and encounter dangerous hybrid life forms that seem bent on killing them.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way (mid-way through the second act to be precise), Annihilation abandons this pulpy premise and decides to go full-on 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Solaris. However, lacking the emotional heft of those masterpieces, the film collapses under the weight of its narrative hokum. The film opens with biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) being debriefed following her trip into The Shimmer. Nearly every question is met with the same response: I don’t know. Well, by the end of the film, you won’t know anything either.
I have no problem with science fiction that asks big questions and only implies its possible answers. Annihilation, on the other hand, ponders some weighty issues, and reaches the profound conclusion of Just because, dude. The audience is expected to admire its obtuseness, to find thematic depth in its ambiguity. I’m reminded of Robert Frost being asked about symbolism in his poetry. He responded, “Sometimes a tree is just a tree.” In this instance, sometimes a confusing mess of a film is just a confusing mess of a film.
The performances compound the faults in the story. Nearly every character is a dour, serious scientist or soldier, speaking in a mind-numbing monotone. For people who just entered an (alien?) dimension, they sure aren’t very animated. There’s no sense of wonder. The only shred of emotion on screen are screams of fear when things go awry. The five women are nothing but labels: biologist, soldier, psychiatrist, physicist, and (I don’t remember). Their lives and motives are cursorily touched upon, but most of them are there as cannon fodder. They might as well be wearing red shirts because their contributions to the story are negligible.
Having never read the novel on which the film is based, I can’t state for certain if the fault in the story lies with the source material or with Alex Garland’s adaptation. My fearless leader, Adam Kautzer, tells me that the novel is a dazzling display of shifting POV’s and unreliable narration with the truth just beyond the grasp of the reader. I can say with confidence that none of these narrative devices are present in the film. The majority of the movie is told in flashbacks with Natalie Portman’s character as the sole POV, and her blandness gives the audience no emotional investment in the outcome of her tale.
In 2017, I attended Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. Each year, the festival offers a “secret screening”, an advance showing of an upcoming release. Speculation runs rampant during the first few days of the fest. Alex Garland’s previous film, Ex Machina, played at a previous Fantastic Fest, so the fan rumor mill was convinced that Annihilation would be the 2017 Secret Screening. It wasn’t. We were treated to Armando Ianucci’s political satire, The Death of Stalin. Until I actually saw Annihilation, I didn’t realize just how fortunate we were.