Tantalizing "Annihilation" Fails to Come Together
With two films under his belt, it’s obvious that director Alex Garland has a keen eye, is able to create a slowly developing sense of doom and is eager to tackle intriguing sci-fi material. He also has problems bringing his films to a satisfactory conclusion. His latest, Annihilation, follows the same pattern as his debut Ex Machina, in that it presents a genuinely engaging premise that holds us in its thrall yet comes to an obvious conclusion instead of exploring more innovative narrative approaches that are on the table. As a result, Garland’s films are exercises in frustration as the director resists following all the way through on his innovative ideas.
Garland sets out to disorient us from the start, presenting his tale as a mystery in need of unraveling. Our first look at Lena (Natalie Portman) gives us a disoriented, quarantined woman being grilled by a physician named Lomax (Benedict Wong). Seems our heroine was part of a small expedition into a restricted area called The Shimmer, a section of Florida that’s been overtaken by some alien entity. It’s slowly expanding and if some answers aren’t found as to what this thing truly is or what it contains, it will eventually take over the Earth. Other groups have gone in but none have returned, expect a lone survivor, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who came back radically changed both physically and mentally. He also happens to be Lena’s husband and she’s intent on getting some answers as to what happened to him.
As a biologist and former soldier, she’s more than qualified to tag along with stoic psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), shy physicist Josie (Tessa Thompson), buff doctor Anya (Gina Rodriguez) and demure anthropologist Cass (Tuva Novotny) who accurately describes each person in the group as “damaged goods.” As they become disoriented – time and space are fluid concepts in The Shimmer – and stress increases, each of these women have a dark night of the soul as secrets for their pasts are revealed, providing the viewer with vital insight as to why they are all there.
The cast is good and game, selling this concept with their sincere performances and each taking advantage of the respective spotlight moments. As you might expect, they start dying off one by one and Garland is quite good in building suspense leading up to their tragic denouements, as well as sustaining a palpable tension throughout. As such, I was waiting for a shocking explanation to just what is at play here, but it never comes. To be sure, the ultimate end of Lena and her cohorts is far from pleasant and genuinely horrific. But there’s a sense that Garland is just dealing with the tip of the iceberg here where his premise is concerned and there are far too many avenues left unexplored. In all fairness the film is based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer, who has already written a sequel to it, one in which I am assuming some of my questions would be answered.
Garland’s two films have been variations on well-established sci-fi themes, Ex Machina being a slick but incomplete update of Frankenstein, while Annihilation is mish-mash of The Thing and Alien. While there’s nothing wrong with putting a new spin on old ideas, the director has yet to put his own distinctive mark on these well-established tropes.