By Brian Harris, Staff Writer
If there’s one thing you can say without certainty about Alex Garland’s new science fiction-horror film Annihilation, it’s that it definitely swings for the fences.
Before we even get to the film itself I think that really needs to be stated. This is a big budget studio film in 2018 that does everything big budget studio films in 2018 hate. And that’s not a knock on studios, but merely an observation apparent to anyone who stumbles into a (probably less than crowded) theater showing Annihilation. It’s brutally violent. It’s slow and plodding. Its interests seem squarely on its philosophical messages. The fact this thing got a mainstream theater release is baffling (although apparently outside of the US, Canada and China, Annihilation is straight to Netflix), and its ambition is staggering. And while I wish I could tell you that the stunning originality led to an all-time classic, it’s a bit more of a mixed bag.
Now, although one of the key strengths this film has is its originality, it’s actually loosely based on a novel. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeen, the first book in his “Southern Reach Trilogy.”
And when I say loosely, I say very loosely. The director of the film adaptation, Alex Garland has been very upfront that this film would in many ways depart from the book, while exploring similar themes, and while I’ve not read the book myself, reading a quick synopsis revealed a story almost entirely different. And to the film’s credit, it’s seemingly simplified many of the actual plot points from the novel. The film tells the story of Lena, played by a traumatized Natalie Portman, a biologist who, for spoiler-ific reasons joins an all-female expedition into the terrifying “Shimmer,” a mysterious force that is slowly encapsulating the Earth. An incredibly simple premise for an incredibly complex film, but if you noticed, I kind of skimmed through the actual characters in that one sentence synopsis, and that’s because the film doesn’t show much of an interest there either.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some really fantastic performances here, from Natalie Portman’s wounded lead, to Gina Rodriguez’s Anya, who is the closest this film comes to an action movie style heroine. In particular, Oscar Isaac shines in a disappointingly small role as Kane, Lena’s husband in key flashback scenes spread throughout the film. It’s not that these are bad roles, the actors are doing a fantastic job here.
It’s that the script, despite its slow pace and reflective tone, has no time for them, which gives the film an odd, almost clinical feel. Garland treats his characters almost more as chess pieces to get from point A to B, than actual living breathing characters. This kind of detachment can get in the way of the film, and stifles it so much, that when revelations are made on the character side of things, they can get little more than a shrug.
But what gets a lot more than a shrug are the visuals. This film is simply gorgeous, with Alex Garland displaying an incredibly amount of skill behind the camera on only his second film (with the excellent Ex Machina being his directorial debut). When Garland wants a shot to fill you with awe, it does. When he wants you to be terrified out of your mind, you are. The atmosphere of “The Shimmer” is palpable in every scene, with some absolutely incredible production design. The Shimmer feels alien, and distinctly other.
So much so, that much of the movie you’ll be on the edge of your seat at the mere act of Lena and company trekking through the The Shimmer’s dense forest landscapes.
Originality should be applauded in Hollywood, and in many cases Annihilation succeeds. When it’s doing what it wants (that is being a philosophical head trip with gorgeous visuals), it’s a triumph and one of the best science fiction films in years. When it’s not, however, it stumbles with flat characters and snail’s pacing.
It’s flawed, that’s for sure. But there’s not a lot like it out there, and so long as you can stomach some truly harrowing sequences this is absolutely worth a (confused) watch. Just, be prepared for some weirdness.