“Annihilation” is a fiercely intelligent and visually inventive sci-fi film that just narrowly avoids plummeting into the valley of its own expansive ethos. There’s a lot to digest here, with different storytelling perspectives and theories being refracted at us from every angle. But “Annihilation’s” journey reaps its own rewards for those courageous enough to trudge into its shimmery unknown.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a former military member turned academic. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is also in the military, but disappeared after a secret mission. Lena carries the grief from Kane’s loss on her shoulders every day but rests when Kane randomly appears outside her bedroom door. Not long after, Kane becomes violently ill and is hospitalized, prompting immediate government interference. Lena is questioned about the incident by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist who fills Lena in on the true nature of Kane’s mission: To observe and report from within the Shimmer, a fertile, biological landscape that mutates and manipulates the genetic makeup of everything inside of it.
With the exception of Kane, all individuals who entered the Shimmer failed to return. Those previous expeditions consisted of mostly men, so a new female team, including Lena and Dr. Ventress, has been assembled to observe and report from within. Their journey is marked by time jumps, bouts of paranoia and screaming bear attacks, plus the occasional glimmer of beauty with other-worldly flowers and serene white deer prancing through the thick, unnatural grass.
The journey into the Shimmer is insightful but is marred by awkward pacing and misplaced flashbacks. The Shimmer brightens as much as it distorts, giving us more story exposition but roughing the edges of these once clearly-defined characters. “Annihilation” is based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer, so the slowness can be attributed to a rough translation form its literary source material.
But even in those weaker moments, director and writer Alex Garland still dedicates his every cell to bringing “Annihilation” to full-life, working with an unyielding respect for his visuals, and more importantly, his characters. Kane and Dr. Ventress are highly-intelligent, fully-motivated individuals, never wasting more words than necessary in a conversation. Their companions Josie (Tessa Thompson), Cass (Tuva Novotny), and Anya (Gina Rodriguez) are also well-crafted individuals with distinct personalities and dangerous instincts.
This plot and group of personalities turn “Annihilation” into a clever inversion of sci-fi and military movie tropes. One would naturally expect an “Aliens” like situation to unfold in this movie, where a dozen of testosterone-loaded marines barge into the Shimmer to shoot every foreign creature in sight. What “Annihilation” serves up instead is weaponized intelligence, where the military finally accepted that a Ph.D is just as deadly as an M-16. Lena’s crew is built of highly intelligent and educated people, but their degrees still don’t save them from irrationality and self destruction.
This movie seems overly-advanced, but “Annihilation” feels like it’s more difficult to understand than it actually is. The science stuff is intriguing but elementary (it’s honestly kind of silly that Lena would be teaching basic cell division to full-fledged medical students.) It’s key themes and metaphors are noted and repeated throughout, like a shot of a distorted glass of water early on that symbolizes the nature of the Shimmer.
But “Annihilation” is still a profound movie-going experience. Not a spiritual wake up call like “Interstellar” or “2001: A Space Odyssey” as much as a careful depiction of a continuously unfolding event like “Arrival” (composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury evoke lots of “Arrival” melodies with their low-toned score.) “Annihilation” is the most daring take on the aliens come to earth trope in recent years, not questioning if the lifeforms are good or evil, but in the grand scheme of things, if that’s a question that deserves an answer.