Director Alex Garland’s sophomore directorial outing, based on the 2014 science fiction novel by Jeff VanderMeer, sees five women exploring an environmental disaster area contaminated by some sort of extraterrestrial phenomenon shrouding the area within shimmering light.
With the radiation of the area shorting out most transmitters, the only information that the women have is that no previous expedition has returned alive, meaning they have no clue exactly what threats lie within, and its borders are beginning to expand, which means they’re on a ticking clock to categorize the phenomenon and figure out how to end it before it moves into more populated areas.
Similarly to Garland’s previous film, “Ex-Machina,” the premise of “Annihilation,” is deceptively stock and simple, masked within symbolism a branching tale of humanity and will, this time touching upon themes of grief, psychological anguish , self loathing, and the nature of unwitting and willful self destruction, designed to play out across a landscape manifesting their flaws, fears, and traumas into physical allegories that they can rise above or succumb to.
The team members, portrayed by Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny, all face a multitude of personal problems that make their willingness to embark on what effectively feels like a suicide mission into the shimmer known as Area X feel all the more suspect. Their problems, which can manifest in a multitude of unsettling behaviors in high tension scenarios, quickly become evident as determiners of whether or not they can rise above their problems rather than ignore them or run away from them.
The chemistry between the cast regularly rotates between healthy and potentially beneficial bonding to certain levels of toxic distrust and they all do stupendous jobs capturing the neurosis that define exactly why they were willing to take such a dangerous job and the varying levels of regret that arise when their psychological hang ups rear their ugly heads.
Don’t let the promises of alien mutants and survivalism in a surreal eerie landscape of scientific terror dripping in a atmosphere akin to gothic horror fool you; “Annihilation” is a slow, reflective, character study in which the science fiction, horror, and action elements serve as a metaphorical and occasionally literal smokescreen for illustrating the negative effects of the human capacity to face physical threats if it comes at the expense of grappling with the personal demons that need to be handled but won’t go down so easily.
Like the aforementioned “Ex-Machina,” this movie is a hard science fiction tale that tackles some fairly uncomfortable and introspective questions with an art house mindset so unapologetic about communicating massive swaths of its intent through visual language of cinematic flourishes that it can almost seem as though it’s occasionally daring you to call it pretentious.
The only real downside to the film is that its reach slightly exceeds its grasp. The bottle story aspect of Garland’s previous film helped to maintain a narrative that was tight, rich, intimate, and gripping from start to finish with a masterfully handled payoff.
While “Annihilation” tackles relatable themes in a bold and challenging manner, its open ended questioning and ambiguous conclusions round the final third of the movie into a product a bit more bloated and less elegant than what unfolded before it, especially when the twists start to pile up to little resolution.
There aren’t many other substantial flaws in this vein but for a movie to be such an ambitious and nigh perfect balancing act reliant on recursive elements from all three acts of the film to work in tandem with one another, having about 20 minutes of the movie that only really operates at half capacity, it goes a pretty long way.
Those flaws hold “Annihilation” back from the perfection it was within spitting distance of achieving and thus does little to inspire over the favor of viewers that may find themselves bored or disappointed expecting something more pulpy than what’s ultimately been delivered. As it is however, well produced hard science fiction made earnestly for the art of cinematic storytelling rather than the almighty Hollywood dollar happens so rarely it can’t be considered anything less than praiseworthy for being a good movie on top of an ambitious one.
4 out of 5
Graduating from Texas A&M University—Commerce with a bachelor's degree in News and Editorial Journalism, Jordan Wright has lived most of his adult life professionally critiquing films, from major blockbusters to indie dramas, and has no intentions of stopping.