***1/2 out of ****
(for strong violence, bloody images, strong language, and some sexuality)
Released: February 23, 2018
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Sonoya Mizuno, Benedict Wong
Linda Holmes, host of the NPR podcast “Pop Culture Happy Hour”, tweeted this out after catching a preview screening of Annihilation:
- “Well, ANNIHILATION is a movie that’s going to keep the Talking Out Of Your Ass About A Filmmaker’s Intent industry busy for a while. (I loved it, and I freely admit I couldn’t begin to guess what was intended.)”
Her instinct is right. If ever there were a movie served up to critics to read into it what they will, made in a way that virtually eggs them on to wax profound (which says more about film writers than the filmmaker), Annihilation is it.
The thing is, beyond serving as a parable for self-destruction, Annihilation is more a straight genre exercise than some cryptically brainy, densely Freudian, philosophical load of pretense. At first pass, Annihilation doesn’t feel like a movie straining to say a lot. It’s simply smart about the story it’s telling and how it’s telling it, one that’s psychologically unnerving and intensely character-driven.
I’m dubious if there’s that many layers here, or if there’s supposed to be. What you’re meant to catch, Alex Garland’s script and direction make plain. The narrative structure and clarity is impressive. Never bluntly expository, it develops organically. What’s supposed to remain mysterious remains mysterious. That’s meant as sincere high praise, not a critique. There’s stuff to chew on but it’s not confusing.
And yet, there’s something to be said for the fact that I couldn’t stop spinning it over in my head for days. The damn thing lingers.
Writer/Director Garland (Ex Machina) takes great liberties with Jeff VanderMeer’s novel (or so I’ve heard, not having read the book myself), but with strong command and clear intention. Natalie Portman’s Lena leads a small team of female scientists to investigate the everglade territory that’s been taken over by an alien force field known as The Shimmer.
Several all-male teams have entered before but never returned, vanishing entirely, except for one soldier who’s no longer himself. Lena has seven years of military experience herself, along with a secret she feels compelled to keep from the others.
The Shimmer is the result of a meteorite striking a lighthouse. After impact, the life force on that meteorite began to emanate and grow. It continues to expand but at the pace of a glacier through molasses. Nevertheless, it keeps expanding and can’t be stopped. Eventually, over time, it will consume everything in its path, namely the entire planet and everything on it.
The team’s mission? Enter the field, go to the lighthouse, collect data, and then return. Maybe the women can succeed in finding answers where the men could not (a strong statement in itself that, thankfully, Garland does not belabor or ham-fist).
It all unfolds with the chilly sobriety of a humorless James Cameron, hueing more ambitiously to Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris). Comparisons to Arrival are apt. This is art house sci-fi with the affectations of a blockbuster.
Time, memory, and perception become skewed. Paranoia burrows in. Evolution takes on new, unexpected forms. More cerebral than aggressive, Annihilation still peaks in fits and flashes of queasy horror, but ones that emerge from sustained builds, not gotcha shocks. We may not see things coming in this rainbow-refracted atmosphere, but we feel it.
In fact, for all the climactic action that requires us to draw conclusions rather than reach them, Garland’s primary goal, it seems, is to make us feel more than think. Yes, there is talk about humanity’s self-destructive nature (from the burdens of depression on the psyche to physical diseases beyond our control), but ultimately it’s about feeling the burdens and baggage that each woman carries, ones that these events ignite.
There’s some visionary, trippy sci-fi in Annihilation, all based in fascinating genetic hypotheses, plus some raw, emotional ensemble work, particularly from Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez, but everyone is heavily invested here, including Portman.
There’s probably more to glean and dissect from Annihilation in future viewings, likely reaping even richer rewards, but there’s a danger in trying to overthink this one, too. It’s not nearly as alienating as some have judged it. The evocations that Annihilation traffics in are visceral and instinctive, not intellectual. Its manifestations are primal.