Movie review: ‘Annihilation’

Alex Garland goes for big and beautiful, but reaches too far

According to the majority of reviews I’ve seen, this is an unpopular opinion, but I’m here to say it: “Annihilation,” the latest effort from sci-fi prodigy Alex Gardner (who brought us the magnificent “Ex Machina” in 2015) is mediocre at best.

Written and directed by Gardner and starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez (the standout star, in my opinion) and Oscar Isaac, “Annihilation” is based on the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. It follows the story of a team of scientists attempting to solve the mystery of Area X, a large swath of land on the Florida coast that has become cut off from the surrounding area by “the shimmer” — an inexplicable phenomenon that seems extraterrestrial in nature. Portman’s Lena, a professor of cellular biology and army veteran, is part of the team, determined to find out what happened to her husband Kane (Isaac), the only member of the previous team to come out alive (before he collapsed into a coma, anyway).

The team makes their way through Area X, eventually reaching an abandoned army base, where they get more questions than answers from a memory card left behind by the previous expedition. As they push deeper, the sinister nature of Area X begins to make itself known: that whatever entity controlling it is capable of manipulation and mimicry of existing DNA. Thompson’s Josie, a physicist, says its absorbing and refracting the DNA of living things like a prism refracts light — transforming things inside Area X like animals and flowers into genetically impossible, and occasionally terrifying, parodies of their natural selves (case in point: a grotesque version of a bear with what looks like an upside-down face and three skulls that will certainly give you nightmares). Even more unsettling is that Area X is growing — and there’s no way the team can figure out to stop it.

It’s an intriguing story, but for a film being promoted as a “new sci-fi classic,” the entirety of “Annihilation” falls flat. Sci-fi, like horror, is a tough genre to be successful in; it’s not enough to have a unique story or enticing visual effects, although I will say that Garland certainly creates a visually stunning movie to watch. In “Annihilation,” the acting is excellent but uneven, and the characters — who are so richly composed in the novel — are thin, barely developed past the cliches of “tough chick” or “enigmatic team leader,” among others, which leads to some eye-rollingly bad dialogue. The last 20 minutes or so of the movie are the incredible ones, but the rest of it is a clumsy framing device that manages to both over- and under-explain crucial pieces of information (don’t get me started on the oroborous tattoo).

On a personal level, my biggest complaint with “Annihilation” is the frustration that such excellent source material was so completely butchered in the course of the adaptation. Admittedly, the novels are a mind-bending read — it gave me a headache to explain them to my fiance — but it was baffling to see such major changes made to central characters (like Portman’s Lena and Leigh’s psychologist), when leaving their characters intact would have had the same impact on the story. In both cases – but especially for Lena — the result was a poorly-developed, or at least largely uninteresting, character. It wasn’t just the flaws in character development from page to screen; the story overall was sensationalized, in a way, with Garland reframing it into an “aliens versus humans,” or even an “us versus them” angle. That isn’t entirely untrue, but it does a disservice to the message of the novels, which is more ambivalent in whether or not Area X is malicious.

Generally speaking, though, it’s not as though “Annihilation” isn’t worth seeing — the visuals are incredible, the score is dramatic and eerie and utterly perfect, it’s exciting to watch. So take a Friday night to see it on the big screen; if nothing else, it will provide you with a lot of post-movie discussion over what it means to be human.