“Annihilation” is a melting pot. It’s quite difficult to compare it to a singular film that might capture its mood and personality. It carries the same cerebral, ominous tones that were signature traits in director Alex Garland’s previous hit, “Ex Machina,” and now bleeds into the increasingly horrific expedition via our protagonist crew.
Fortunately, Garland establishes a relatively simple plot to focus on other aspects of form. In short, John Hopkins biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), who in the process of mourning her missing — and presumed to be dead — husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), is interrupted by his abrupt and confusing return.
He’s not the same — cold, quiet and off-put. Demanding an explanation, Lena is blockaded in her curiosity by Kane’s monotonously persistent barrage of vagueness. Where had he been for the last year, the only returning survivor of a covert military operation?
When Kane undergoes sudden cardiac arrest, the ambulance carrying both he and Lena en route to the hospital is intercepted by a convoy of nondescript government soldiers, erratically waving rifles in their face and sedating Lena. When she awakes in an unknown facility, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) fills her and the audience in so far as explaining Kane’s mission from a year prior: the investigation of a colossal, relentless and slowly expanding bubble of light known as the Shimmer.
It manages to not only swallow and contort the laws of natural physics, but it also distorts the phenomenology and conscious of all who enter, never to be seen again — except for Kane. Determined to find the solution to her husband’s condition and cure him, Lena joins Dr. Ventress and a group of scholars into the Shimmer with nothing more than rations, five rifles and a burning curiosity for what lies at the source of the phenomenon.
In keeping this review largely spoiler-free, what I can say about the remainder of the plot can be categorized into a pseudo-mixture of “Apocalypse Now,” “Stalker” and the works of Lewis Carroll: a descent into the surreal, a transformative reflection on the self and more psychedelic aesthetics than I can shake a stick at.
The five-person crew of scholars and Ventress continually recede further and further from the normative qualities of consciousness, including aspects of memory loss, time-based disorientation and visual trickery. As a continuous theme, each character begins to lose their grasp on tangibility, begging the question of whether or not what’s seen is a hallucination, as it simply can’t be explained by any other outcome...right? The result is an almost “Alien”-esque subsequence of characters’ fates — facing death or escaping the Shimmer intact. But the question remains: How can one escape their own mind?
Therein lay the magic of “Annihilation”: allowing itself to become totally unbound by a creative expressionism that Garland has capitalized on to match the story’s concepts of reproduction, mirroring and transformative reflexivity. He does this in a tightly causal, visually pleasing way. The colors of our understandable reality are sharp, cool and almost too bland to care for.
There’s not an ounce of disbelief in sight, and the process of Lena’s mourning seems irritatingly predictable to gravitate viewers into the remainder of the film. Alternatively, the Shimmer itself is an explosive array of hypnotic hues: dancing shapes and abstract streams of reds, blues, greens and purples floating around one another in a silent, looming manner.
Once the expedition is well under way, the design of the world attempts to grasp tightly to the precedence of nature as humans have understood it for millenia. This is, of course, a fruitless endeavour, as Lena’s expertise highlights the inexplicable formations of organic plants, animals and whatever it is that gives the characters a continuous sense of being watched from just beyond the trees.
Before long, the Shimmer begins to weigh its effects on the team in ways that are impossible in the discourse of modern science. Nevertheless, they occur, between the beautiful, eye-popping decadence of saturated colors in the lush woods, and the cold, claustrophobic blue cast down by the moon on the silhouetted treeline in the night — where, quite literally, anything could be watching.
Arriving at the supposed source — an abandoned lighthouse — Lena enters to discover horrors and wonders beyond her comprehension. Throughout this visual trip, traces of Kane’s venture into the Shimmer surface through a series of video cameras, memories and cuts to a room packed with hazmat-suited individuals, in which Lena is being questioned as the potential sole survivor of this expedition.
A time after the journey, but how? How did she arrive here? What of the other members? How did Kane return? As Garland has already established, the human senses can be deceiving and often malicious. No longer does the film hold the idea of a scientific-thriller romp in order for a woman to cope with the truth behind her husband’s disappearance or existence. Rather, it’s an intense externalization of anxieties, clouded thought and a general confusion with the macrocosm of the world.
I can’t say much more about the spaces in between without spoiling the meat of the plot. Instead, here are a few things to watch out for that I was personally disappointed with. By and large, the dialogue was my biggest gripe with “Annihilation.” Characters — especially the supporting cast — would frequently recite a smug or clever one-liner that danced between the fine line of “unique personality” and “incredibly trite.”
There wasn’t even concern with the degree to which they were clichés, but rather how damning their predictability ended up being. Not only did the poor dialogue and excessive exposition pull me from the immersion of this wonderful world Garland creates, but it raised the levels of meta-cinema that prevented me from seeing this as anything more than characters who know they’re in a movie. For a film involving themes of reality and truth, this department seemed lacking.
Secondly — as discouraging as this sounds — the climax of the plot was a great letdown for me. The Shimmer emanates this sparkling allure of grandeur — mystery and creativity loose from the structures of the millions of other films in history. Its presence is both terrifying and something I couldn’t turn from: My craving for the truth at its source only increased as the film progressed.
Unfortunately, in the wake of the “grand reveal” (a breathtaking cinematographic exercise by Rob Hardy), Lena’s observation of this and subsequent response to the interrogation committee (and thus, myself) were far too vague to satisfy the appetite of narrative mind-blowing that I was expecting to occur.
The plot seemed to drop notions of the outward projection of the internal, human conscious in such a literal and heavy-handed way that the product of the last ninety minutes would ultimately end with a contemplative series of obscure musings that were vacant and frustrating for me. At least in “Apocalypse Now,” the toiling journey downriver has a payoff beyond Marlon Brando’s deified performance.
Here, Lena and Garland only leave more questions, a sort of fill-in-the-blank, and a sense that it had all been for nothing. I say these concerns with reluctance, because to turn readers away from Garland’s film would be a grave mistake on all parties. “Annihilation” is a brand-new, wonderfully original process of film that gives me new perspective on the effectivity of worldbuilding.
Even where story and character design fall short, the film is carried by its visual marvel and superb acting. In itself, that’s a priceless experience that, to me, completely justifies its two-hour runtime. In fact, the film doesn’t seem to drag — ever. From the start, it is a constant system of looking for clues, hints at cracks in the machine and ulterior motives. Scenes of horror, intensity and white-knuckled anxiety are performed masterfully, matched by an airtight score from Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow.
Make no mistake, “Annihilation” is, while far from being labeled a masterpiece, a shining example of experts at work. That is, if it ever existed at all. Garland’s psychological funhouse permeates the screen with a commanding presence.
At the very least, its international Netflix release spares us from the next hour of mindlessly surfing thumbnails before inevitably landing on reruns out of sheer boredom. More importantly, though, it makes it all the more easy to have a thought-provoking and incredibly entertaining night.
Final Grade: B-
To watch the trailer for "Annihilation," click here.