'Annihilation' Review

WORDS: Alex Welch

Alex Garland’s Annihilation has one of the most distinct opening sequences of any sci-fi film in recent memory. In it, the writer and director manages to effectively set up all of Annihilation’s best and most distinct features, which include its immense visual beauty, the central mystery at the heart of it (and the suspense needed to make it intriguing in the first place), and an atmosphere that bubbles with a strange, disorienting unease. The fact that Annihilation is able to maintain all of those same traits, in equal measure, for most of its remaining runtime, is a testament to Garland’s innate ability as a storyteller, despite this being only his second feature outing as a director.

courtesty of IMDB

Based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, the film follows Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist whose husband returns home from his last covert mission sick and, seemingly, dying. When she discovers that this is a result of his time in “The Shimmer” - a classified environmental disaster zone, which is growing in size with each passing day - she volunteers herself for the next expedition into The Shimmer, on a team comprised of only scientists. What she and her team members discover in The Shimmer, though, not only mystifies and, at times, horrifies them, but also challenge everything they thought they knew about the natural world.

Much to Garland’s credit, he has populated Annihilation with some of the best actors working in the entertainment industry today. Most notable are the actresses who comprise its central all-female team of scientists who, along with Portman, include Tessa Thompson; Gina Rodriguez; Jennifer Jason Leigh; and Tuva Novotny, who delivers a standout performance as Cass Shepard, the team member that Portman’s Lena develops the closest relationship with throughout their expedition. And while both Thompson and Rodriguez feel underused at times, they bring enough personality and dimension to their characters to make the film’s team feel well-rounded and developed.

courtesy of IMDB

For fans of Garland’s other written work—like 28 Days Later… or Sunshine—they’ll likely be delighted to see the filmmaker returning to the horror genre in full form here. Although, terror would likely be the right word to describe the kinds of chills that Annihilation elicits, which very rarely resorts to cheap jump scares, but rather uses its visuals and pacing to build up an unshakeable dread. As we learn early on in the story, The Shimmer has a disorienting effect on anyone inside its domain, and as Lena and her team journey further into it, that disorientation only grows more and more palpable. The only downside of this then, is that when Garland does choose to show the horrors of The Shimmer in a more straightforward, full-on fashion, they’re never quite as scary as everything that came before.

While Garland’s work diverges from VanderMeer’s novel in some extreme ways, he’s still able to reach the same kind of beats and shocks. That includes one discovery near the beginning of its third act that is guaranteed to prompt gasps from audience members when they see it in the theater. Despite being well-choreographed and slightly predictable, the scene’s pacing and staging are still so well thought out that it earns its impact.

courtesy of IMDB

The same cannot be said for some of the other beats that the film hits in its second half. As Garland grows closer and closer to Annihilation’s climax, it feels as though his writing and directing become sloppier and more on the nose. Characters reach conclusions that make sense on paper, but which are reached at an unbelievably fast rate. And where Garland could have used ambiguity to his advantage in the film’s overall conclusion, he instead takes a much more straightforward, ham-fisted route. These mistakes don’t have a disastrous effect on the film’s quality but they are still particularly noticeable, due to how alien they feel compared to the patience and intelligence exemplified in the film’s first half.

Thanks to some of these flaws and editorial decisions by Garland, Annihilation doesn’t ever hit the same highs that his previous effort, Ex Machina, did. Where Garland managed to manipulate audience expectations to masterful effect in that 2015 sci-fi classic, Annihilation has a much harder time getting all of its pieces to fit together. It’s still an enthralling, worthwhile experience at the cinema—one that has mood to spare and is packed to the brim with some unforgettable sci-fi thrills—but which just doesn’t quite live up to its own promise by the time everything is said and done.

SCORE: 4 mysterious meteorites out of 5