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Annihilation (2018)

DIRECTOR: Alex Garland

CAST: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, David Gyasi

REVIEW:

While a sci-fi fan, I confess to a certain weariness of this kind of pretentiously obtuse existential variation on the genre that, like Arrival, seems to feel maddening ambiguity makes it look unfathomably complex and intelligent (both films had critics falling all over each other to praise them as exactly that).  Alex Garland’s first film since his directorial debut Ex Machina and an adaptation of the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation boasts some nice visuals and creepy moments, but mistakes ambiguity for its own sake with profundity, and strings the audience along for non-answers that are neither illuminating nor narratively satisfying enough to make the winding journey worth undertaking.  “I don’t know” is a line uttered repetitively throughout the film, and walking out of the theater, many audience members may say the same when asked what they just watched.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist, ex-soldier, and college professor mourning the presumed death of her military husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) during a top-secret covert mission twelve months ago.  Then one night, Kane comes home…or does he?  The man in her kitchen looks like Kane, but he stares blankly, provides monosyllabic evasive answers when asked where he’s been and what happened to him, and it’s not long before he’s coughing up blood and being rushed to the hospital.  But neither he nor Lena makes it there.  Instead, they’re waylaid en route by a convoy of military vehicles and whisked to a secret research facility studying “The Shimmer”, an amorphous forcefield that’s expanding out from a lighthouse that was struck by a meteor (or something) three years ago.  Drones, animals, and several human teams have all entered The Shimmer, but none have returned until Kane, but the man who may or may not be Kane is barely clinging to life.  Determined to find out what her husband encountered inside The Shimmer, Lena volunteers to join an all-female research team led by chilly psychiatrist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and including a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), and an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny).  Once inside, the group discovers that plants and animals are undergoing increasingly extreme mutations, and disturbing indications that the previous team may have either all been killed by mutated monsters, or gone insane and slaughtered each other (neither a promising prospect).  Lena determines to forge ahead, even when some of her teammates threaten to go to pieces, but concrete answers will be in short supply for both our heroine and the audience.

Annihilation at least boasts some eye candy (and I’m not referring to the all-women team).  The special effects are effective but not used to excess.  Much of the “offness” within The Shimmer is a subtle, eerie sense of distortion.  Flowers are just a little too bright, different species all bloom from the same plant, an identical pair of alien-looking deer move in mirror images of each other.  Further into The Shimmer, things get creepier: a field dotted with trees grown in humanoid shapes, crystalline spires sprouting from a beach, a fungal mold sprouting from a mutilated corpse, a hideous mutated bear that “steals” the screaming voice of its victim.  There’s a couple bursts of action/suspense, including an attack by a mutated crocodile, and later the group being stalked by the mutant bear in a room where three of them are tied to chairs.

Alas, when the climax arrives, the “revelations” it unspools (such as there any) are largely opaque and lack the sort of profundity (or at least clear meaning) that is required to make the journey worth undertaking.  Like Arrival, a considerable commitment of time, attention, and patience is asked in exchange for insufficient rewards and an anti-climactic and un-illuminating fizzle.  Things end with an intentional dose of ambiguity, but we’re not really engaged enough to ponder the questions we’re left with.  There’s other narrative weaknesses along the way.  There’s too many horror movie cliches of ostensibly highly intelligent characters doing dumb things.  The bookend device of starting with Lena being interrogated after the trip defuses a substantial amount of suspense by immediately letting us know that SPOILER WARNING A) Lena makes it back, and B) no one else does.  Virtually any substantial questions being answered with “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure it wanted anything” (when interrogated about what the alien wanted) doesn’t make for a particularly compelling premise.

Once highly-regarded, it’s been suspected for quite a while now that Natalie Portman’s heart isn’t really in acting anymore.  Her performance here isn’t “bad”, but nor does it display much range.  Even more listless and vacant is Jennifer Jason Leigh, who drones every line in the same vaguely spaced-out monotone.  In fact, the most impression among the team members is made not by Portman, Leigh, or Tessa Thompson (recently seen in Thor: Ragnarok), but Gina Rodriguez, who has enough screen presence and emotional range to draw the camera’s attention even without getting a great deal of central focus, while lesser-known Tuva Novotny brings up the rear.  Oscar Isaac (reunited with Garland from Ex Machina) has a limited but key role, and there’s small roles for Benedict Wong and David Gyasi.

Annihilation has the look and feel of a film that plainly fancies itself high-brow brainy philosophical sci-fi, but lacks the well-defined narrative structure or the substantive content.  It looks pretty, but it’s all surface sheen covering murky, muddled befuddlement.

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