Thursday, February 22, 2018


I love Ex Machina (enough to name it my favorite film of 2015), but holy hell is director Alex Garland's follow-up project a clusterfuck. Based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation focuses on a biologist and former soldier (Natalie Portman) who chooses to journey into a rainbow-curtain rift (referred to as a shimmer) with four other female scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, and Tessa Thompson) in hopes of understanding what is happening inside and what the anomaly did to her husband (Oscar Isaac) who was the only soldier sent from any of the previous expeditions to make it out alive.

Although hardly original, the film starts out with an interesting enough premise. Some of this is fulfilled within the group's early moments inside the altered reality, although the existence and nature of it also creates several of the film's biggest plot problems. Existing and expanding for three years, viewable by satellite, radar, and the human eye, and having swallowed up whole towns that had to be evacuated, we are led to believe the somehow the military has kept the existence of this anomaly secret from the world the entire time? Seriously?

Garland's world within a world is pretty, to be sure. It's a dream/nightmare state that has all kinds of effects on those that enter (only some of which he script has any intention of explaining such as abandoned plot threads about the passage of time). Where the film gets into trouble is its unwillingness to chose a motif or genre. Instead, Annihilation shifts violently in tone from sci-fi to fantasy to horror to gore and back again preventing us from ever getting a feel for what the movie wants to be. The fact that the entire enterprise is pointless (that's not a dig, the movie actual comes out and states definitively there was no larger point to the existence of the rift and its effects) is also problematic for a movie that teases us with mystery and larger sci-fi questions without having the slightest idea about how to answer them.

While I applaud the idea of embracing an first encounter type of film with a very non-human style alien presence, Garland's script never leads anywhere interesting. The journey certainly has some moments as our explorers discover the bizarre state of nature inside the shimmer, but once you get over the film's look and design it becomes obvious there isn't much going on under the surface. Speaking of surface, the inconsistent edges of the shimmer (sometimes in the sky and sometimes not, depending on the shot and camera angle, feels a bit half-assed. And can someone explain to me why these four ladies walk through the shimmer all the way towards the center (the same method that the soldiers took before them) when parachuting from a plane or rowing in from the coast would seem to get them to their destination in a fraction of the time? The path of their fellowship is highly questionable.

The choice to frame the entire story from Portman's perspective after the events have unfolded is also problematic because it offers us all kinds of unnecessary information to the audience (like who survives and who doesn't) that undercuts the basic mystery of her bizarre situation. We know too much going in, and what we don't can easily be guessed by the hamfisted foreshadowing on display. The need for the script to throw in marital issues between herself and her presumed-dead husband (apparently not part of the book's plot) feels awkwardly shoehorned in and skews the character's motivations from curiosity and love to being fueled mainly by guilt.

After sitting on the fence for a large chuck of the film, I was pushed over the edge by multiple gratuitous sequences and one hell of a disappointing ending. While the film didn't work for me, I think some may find themselves pulled in by its spectacle. Annihilation may become the most disputed film of 2018. Ultimately, I don't the the film is worth it, or even worthy of the discussion it may generate among those with dissenting opinions about its effectiveness (or lack thereof).

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