Alex Garland’s latest big-screen offering – and small screen, more on that later – is the ‘cerebral’ thriller Annihilation. I put cerebral in quotations as Inception this is not! Admittedly I am one of the few people who were not blown away by Garland’s last outing, the enjoyable but, I felt, too ponderous, Ex Machina.
I will say that Garland definitely has a good visual style. Like Ex Machina, Annihilation looks incredible, which contributes to an initially interesting and disturbing atmosphere. That soon wears off as the story gets not so much going as plods along.
Natalie Portman is Lena, an ex-soldier turned scientist/biologist whose husband, Oscar Issac’s Kane, also a military person, has gone missing presumed dead. Lena mopes around her home, sullen with grief and guilt – she had an affair with a married colleague at the college she works at, though it is not indicated whether the affair happened whilst her husband was missing or beforehand – cutting herself off from friends and acquaintances.
Kane returns but he is different and cannot explain his year-long absence. When he suddenly becomes critically ill, Lena takes him back to the military base in an effort to save him. There she meets Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr Ventress who tells her about her Kane’s return from an exploratory mission into an unexplained area they had named the Shimmer, due to its dome-like shimmering quality.
Ventress goes on to explain that several missions had yielded no results and they had lost much personnel. All the previous expeditions had been male only, so for no discernible reason I could fathom, the next suicide – sorry – expedition would be an all-female affair. Lena, military trained and a scientist to boot, decides to join the mission reasoning – poorly – that the answer to whatever is killing her husband is inside the mysterious Shimmer.
So, on a planet where a person can barely sneeze without it hitting the internet and satellites from every first world country orbit the planet, this Shimmer has been being investigated, for over a year, just by the Americans. A year in which it has expanded and they have kept feeding military bodies to it. Right. Onward.
Five intrepid ladies head into the Shimmer, besides Lena and the doctor, there is Tessa Thompson as the DNA specialising, anthropologist Josie Radek, Gina Rodriguez as the overtly gay Anya Thorensen and Tuva Novotny as Cass Sheppard. All have their scientific specialities, not that it matters much in the context of the film.
Only the good doctor knows Lena is related to Kane, the only person to have returned from the Shimmer.
Once inside the Shimmer, all sense of time and orientation is lost, the women cannot remember entering the Shimmer, nor can they recall how long they have been inside.
They trek on exploring the wondrous and lush landscape. On coming upon a semi-submerged houseboat, they proceed to investigate. One them gets attacked by something in the water. Obviously. After a frantic rescue, there is a brief showdown with the unidentified river/swamp beast. Lena shows her military prowess, emptying a clip into it. Bravo.
There is quite unbelievable science, gobbledygook and hapless exposition as they speak of DNA adaption and mutations. Unfortunately, such subject matter has been executed so much better in other films and television programmes.
There is madness, mutiny, abduction and death but it is not anything you would care about as none of the characters is particularly memorable or empathetic. I would give out a complete spoiler-laden review, but it would make very little difference in the context of the film, with its somewhat ambiguous premise petering out to a most unsatisfying conclusion.
None of this is the fault of the talent on show, who all try gamely with the material they are given, but with exposition kept to a bare minimum – usually a good thing – and explanations almost nonexistent, the story struggles to keep a viewer either engaged or caring.
Annihilation is almost too smart for its own good, with the questions it poses – why would you keep going in? How has no one in the world noticed there’s an expanding light bubble in North America? – not the ones it perhaps hoped for. Annihilation was released in theatres in the U. S. but in Europe, due to some distribution issues, was released on Netflix. As I said earlier, the visuals in the film are stunning so it is a pity – even with the advent of supersize televisions – that it could not find even a limited theatrical release in Europe, as its visual scope at least deserves a large screen.
Annihilation is not unwatchable, but it is disappointing and somewhat pretentious with a good film buried beneath the pretensions.