There was no way I was going to miss this movie – for two reasons, actually. The first being that my daughter usually beats me to the punch on new releases and I needed to see this one before she did just cuz. The second being Alex Garland. Now, I haven’t seen most of Garland’s work, but I liked Dredd a lot, despite it mostly being a RoboCop movie in disguise, and I flat out loved Ex Machina., which was, if memory serves, my favourite movie of 2015.
Though I have to say, I wasn’t completely primed after watching the trailer. It seemed interesting, but it didn’t grab me, and after watching the movie today, that feeling extended all the way. Adapted by Garland from the novel of the same name, written by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation is the story of a mysterious, apparently alien, foothold on Earth, which has resulted in the loss of numerous missions sent in to uncover the secrets within. Nobody has yet died, that they know of, they just haven’t returned – with the exception of Kane (The Last Jedi‘s Oscar Isaac), soldier and husband to Lena, played by Natalie Portman. While Lena is still grieving over the disappearance of her husband, an unexpected development sees her transported against her will to a facility at the edge of the expanding mysterious area, named The Shimmer, because of the rippling effect of the perimeter. Lena, a former soldier herself, now a biologist in civilian life, asks to join the latest expeditionary beyond the perimeter, led by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, Dr. Ventress. As Lena and Vendress lead a small all-female team in through The Shimmer, they find a bizarre, dangerous, mutated environment, and like all such movies where a group of people find themselves in a strange, threatening environment, things go from bad to worse as the movie heads towards its climax.
Unlike the most recent “group in danger” movie, Netflix’s The Ritual and The Descent (which it’s most worth comparing to, given the makeup of the cast), the movie does not do much with the characters, and that was a big problem for me. Sure, Lena gets a lot of character development using framing sequences and flashbacks to supplement her role in the main story, but the same can’t really be said of the other women, especially those played by Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, and Thor:Ragnarok‘s Tessa Thompson. The movie spends so much time on Lena that there’s only enough time to sketch the other characters in – I found it to be one of movie’s fatal flaws, and I was painfully aware that I was watching the movie waiting for the inevitable body count. I didn’t really care for any of the characters in this movie, even Lena – although I confess part of that may be from my lack of interest in Natalie Portman. But there’s also the hard fact that Lena herself is not a sympathetic character. It’s hard to be invested in a movie when one finds the lead character unlikeable for all of the running time. Contrasting that with Amy Adams in Arrival, a character I was invested in from start to finish. And yes, I know they’re two different characters – my point being the strong relationship between story and sympathetic lead characters creates a bond between movies and audiences. I didn’t feel that bond with Lena or her journey.
Likewise, I wasn’t feeling Area X (the growing environment contained within The Shimmer). The perimeter itself is a hugely intriguing visual; it looks like coloured oil paints running down a canvas. It’s simultaneously beautiful and eerie at the same time, and looks great in the trailers. Unfortunately, what lies beyond is pretty bland. Despite a profusion of colourful mutated flora, Area X looks like a pretty normal forest, and to me that was another of the movie’s fatal flaws. When you pull aside a colourful curtain, the last thing you want to see is a generically furnished room. My reaction was “that’s it?” Likewise, the mutated animals of the place. I wanted to see something much different to what Annihilation gave me. In presenting Area X with such a backstory of complete and utter mystery the mind goes in expecting something big, and I felt this was a chance for the movie to really stand out, but it doesn’t. There is a nicely creepy visual spotted numerous times throughout that also lends the movie a degree of pathos, but I was unimpressed by everything else.
But where the movie gets my low rating is in Act 3. What’s impressive about the ending of the movie is in its brazenly pretentious unfolding. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m well up for pretension in movies, and I don’t consider that to be an automatically critical adjective, but I do believe that when a writer or director (or writer/director as in this case) sets out to favour the “art” of their movie over a more conventional approach, the onus is on them to deliver greater meaning to the audience, and I didn’t find that here whatsoever. I was reminded a little of the Scarlett Johannson movie Under The Skin, a movie that heavily veers to the arty side, yet maintains a powerful meditation on the loneliness of the human condition. Annihilation has no such depth that I could detect. I was never really aware that it was trying to tell me anything other than a mostly mediocre variation on people being lost in the woods, dressed up with some good looking visuals. This sense that there is no actual other layers to the story is compounded by the fact that nobody in the movie can detect anything either. Adding to a catalogue of “I don’t know” answers, there’s a painful lack of speculation about the situation too, which just made me feel that none of the characters really cared about what was happening, in the way that you or I would care.
As I said, I haven’t read the book, but I do know that it’s the first in a series – The Southern Reach trilogy, to be exact – and to be sure, that feeling of “this is it?!” I had when the movie ended could be compounded by it being the first episode, but I would be utterly amazed if Paramount greenlit another installment of this joyless, tedious, and mostly pointless story.
© Andrew Hope, 2018