Annihilation feels like the product of its own mythology; a beautiful and unnatural combination of many separate components. Writer/Director Alex Garland’s last outing, the exquisite Ex Machina, was a tight, minimalistic sci-fi thriller and one of the best films of 2015. All elements were near perfect; the story was gripping and layered, the soundtrack was atmospheric, the performances were outstanding, and the implications of the narrative were subtly terrifying.
This being the case, I was rather looking forward to Annihilation. I generally enjoy Natalie Portman’s performances, and I was excited to see what Garland could do with a more substantial budget. Unfortunately, Annihilation, unique as it is, never becomes more than the sum of its parts.
The plot revolves around an unexplained ball of alien goo that fell into a lighthouse and mutated into a dome of alien goo known as “The Shimmer.” Nobody knows what it is, where it came from, or what’s inside. What they do know is it’s expanding, albeit slowly. Furthermore, nobody has come back from any expeditions into The Shimmer until very recently.
At the onset of the film, Lena (Portman), is being questioned about the events that took place while she was inside. Through flashbacks, we observe her life as well as that of her husband (the first and only other person ever to return from The Shimmer). We also see the occurrences that led up to the interrogation, as well as entirely unnecessary flashbacks within flashbacks.
Concept wise, Annihilation checks all of the boxes for a promising, high concept sci-fi movie with some real depth. In its execution, though, it stumbles and nearly fails completely. The most significant issue at hand is that somehow every single line of dialogue is expository. Whether it’s a heaping dose of backstory or characters outright explaining their emotions rather than feeling them, the script consistently pulled me out of the experience.
The characters uniformly feel dimensionless, despite Garland’s best efforts. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance is particularly baffling, as it seems she was either instructed to act as emotionless and bored as possible, or she got into Danny Glover’s Ambien and had herself a very laid-back party.
The plot periodically comes to a screeching halt in order to toss scraps of relationship drama into Lena’s backstory. In another recent contemplative sci-fi film, Arrival, the relationship building and emotional backstory were used as red herrings and ways to trick the audience into believing the twisted timeline of the film’s events as well as to humanize Amy Adams’ character. The inclusion of these elements helped her, the story at large, and the film’s structure. It had a purpose.
In Annihilation, they feel either like incomplete ideas resulting from extensive edits, or clumsy attempts to make the audience see depth where there is none. This problem extends to the unnecessarily convoluted structure of the story. We start in time period A, flash back to time period B, then inside of B we go back to C, then sometimes randomly from C back to A, or from A to C, or any other combination therein. The point being, the temporal setting of each scene is given to change with no warning, and I was eager to see how that would be used to misdirect the audience.
Ultimately, though, it never is. The idea of time slippage is introduced but never utilized, leaving me to wonder why the film needed to be laid out in this way at all. Referring back to Arrival again, the challenging structure was the point of the film. It was the big “Aha!” moment at the end. Annihilation has no “Aha!” moment aside from a perfunctory and painfully predictable twist at the conclusion.
I suppose that this could just be a way of spicing up an otherwise direct narrative, but I found it disappointing that there was no surprise in it. I wanted the movie to mess with my head and not just give me what I already expected. Had the idea of time being unpredictable had any more significance than two lines of dialogue, it could have been used to stellar effect in making the audience work a little bit to unravel the story.
I would almost have been able to ignore all of this if the story itself weren’t slow, dull, and ultimately pointless. None of the characters have any real impact on anything, and the actual motivations of those characters remain maddeningly vague for some, and utterly nonexistent for others, despite the aforementioned wealth of exposition. The plot that they populate eventually leads to a thoroughly unsatisfying revelation based on nothing that had come before, and the film finally just dribbles to a stop. This is particularly dispiriting when compared with the conclusion of Ex Machina, which was exhilarating as well as psychologically compelling.
For all of these flaws, though, Annihilation has a number of remarkable strengths. Borrowing some visual cues from The Last of Us and plentiful inspiration from Arrival and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film finds a strikingly unique visual style the likes of which I’ve never seen. The air is tinted with the haunting rainbow glow of The Shimmer, as is the water. The soundtrack, an odd combination of deep, thrumming, dissonant bass and Crosby Stills & Nash, lends itself perfectly to the unearthly environments. Why that combination works as well as it does, I have no idea.
Furthermore, the film is bursting at the seams with incredibly creative science fiction ideas. Of particular note is the idea of refraction of DNA. Not only does this allow Annihilation to set up some tense action sequences with mutant creatures, but also to justify some of its more outlandish and memorable visuals.
It is also worth pointing out that Annihilation functions almost as well as a horror film as it does a sci-fi one. There are some instances of genuinely unsettling body horror and gore, but it is the omnipresent fear of something beyond comprehension that really messes with the audience and characters. Their bodies are changing, and they cannot trust their own minds, all while the world threatens to kill them in the night by more traditional means. That is if you can call a skull-headed bear that screams like a dying woman traditional.
Annihilation is a vexing movie. For as much as it seems to demand examination, it yields disappointingly little in return. In some ways, it feels like an exercise in futility; like waiting two hours for a twist that won’t come, or for some greater message that simply isn’t there. That having been said, knowing the sharpness of Garland’s writing on Ex Machina, I find myself hoping that I’m wrong. Maybe I missed something that would have made the mountains of exposition and boring/unimportant character drama seem less glaring. It is entirely possible that I’m just too stupid for this movie, but it’s just as likely that the appearance of intelligence does not necessarily guarantee its existence.