Director Alex Garland is four years removed from his excellent sci-fi debut Ex Machina. That being said, the bar for Annihilation was set high. Bring on the complex sci-fi, right? Well, that applies for the last chunk of this film, but there’s something to be said about the first half of Annihilation.
And it isn’t something wonderful.
Going into Garland’s latest, I was in the dark about most of its elements. I knew it surrounded actors Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac and was probably a story of discovery, but that was the extent of my understanding. This helped pique my curiosity for the first 30 minutes or so, unlike those who said the trailer gave away almost everything.
Portman plays Lena, a biologist and professor studying cells and their genetic mutations. She’s struggling with the thought of her husband, Kane (Isaac), never returning home. Kane is your traditional military man who doesn’t shy away from being on the front lines. When Kane surprises Lena at home, she can hardly believe the moment and quickly realizes he isn’t himself. Don’t worry, the movie continues to show you flashback after flashback to remind you that they once used to be a fun, loving couple. When Kane is rushed to the hospital after suddenly spitting up blood, he’s kidnapped by military personnel. Thus begins Lena’s quest to figure out what in the world happened to her husband by entering a mysterious land with a ragtag group of women.
There’s a slow burn to Annihilation, which works for some and not for others. For me, I’m not opposed to slower-paced tales if they’re at least somewhat interesting and sprinkled with well-written dialogue. Garland wrote his script based on Jeff VanderMeer‘s novel, but for some reason there was never a moment where the dialogue eventually clicked. There are plenty of jumpcuts to past and present moments, where we learn more about Lena but… less about other characters. Which leads me to one of the early and prolonging issues: weightless supporting characters.
Portman eventually joins a unit full of women consisting of a headstrong doctor, Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a rough-and-tough fighter in Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) and scientist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson). Each have a certain role…sort of, but none feel like they mesh alongside Portman. Garland’s script forces one-on-one dialogue between each character, but it’s more a chore than a natural moment. I wasn’t convinced by the characters outside of Lena, and that weighs down on the film.
Although, there are rays of sunshine that peek through the cracks during the first half. When the film isn’t juggling several tones and confused about its identity — post-apocalyptic, horror or sci-fi — there’s a unique feeling to Annihilation. I love the tense moments when we try to understand the Shimmer, an element that mutates anything it encompasses. I love the sense of discovery when we’re seeing this new world through the eyes of Lena.
But in between the action, it’s simply boring. The film really tries to connect the dots and set up for the last quarter of its grand reveal and we’re given exposition through dialogue. Instead of seeing Kane’s journey through the Shimmer, we hear about it. When we’re knee-deep in a suspenseful moment, the film cuts out of the action and to Portman being interrogated by fellow scientist Lomax (Benedict Wong). This breaks the immersion and, quite frankly, the first hour or so could have used more gripping moments.
Annihilation isn’t spotty for its entire one hour and 55-minute runtime, though. This unique concept works towards the last half when it commits to being a sci-fi film. There are downright terrifying elements at play, including a certain sequence with a mutated bear. The film’s charm is when it doesn’t try to be overly complex and unravel everything for the audience. Give us the pacing found in the final chunk for the entire film and maybe this would’ve fared better. Another flaw is when Garland jam-packs the first half with plenty of Portman moments and leaves bread crumbs for others to play with. This is clearly her film, but when Isaac — an actor I adore — is given a role that felt meaningless, it’s frustrating. Replace him with any other actor and there’s no difference to the film’s final product. Isaac also has this weird southern accent that comes and goes. Whose idea was that?
When it works, it works just fine. But this film misses the mark one too many times and almost lulled me to sleep during its slower sequences. While it isn’t a two-hour film, it felt longer than its final runtime.
This is ultimately a letdown after seeing Garland’s genius Ex Machina, and I walked away knowing I wasn’t convinced by what took place in Annihilation.
I was treated to an advanced screening of this film for purposes of this review, thanks to Allied Integrated Marketing and Paramount. ❤
Annihilation is most definitely rated-R, runs 1 hr and 55 mins and opened in theaters on Feb. 23, 2018.