Garland's Annihilation just misses mark of cinematic excellence
Within the negative space of ambiguity is a potential to be as expressive as utter silence. Science fiction has been perfecting such “show, don’t tell” techniques since time immemorial. Harnessing the power of subtlety and its implications, those unanswered questions worm their way into an audience’s psyche after the end credits and resonate suspension of disbelief that begs one to question, “What if?” With Annihilation, written and directed by Alex Garland and adapted from the Southern Reach book trilogy written by Jeff VanderMeer, this has become dogma.
An extraterrestrial life form has crash-landed on Earth. Within the dominion of its “Shimmer,” as the expanding area it occupies is coined, life is mutating at an exponential rate.
Genes are rearticulated, organisms scrambled and all of carbon-based life is at stake. Those who enter this lucid realm of creation never return: exposure leads to immediate transmutation; minds denature into sheer lunacy; bodies are recycled into the alternate, blasphemous design of this new engineer. Annihilation looms like a shadow over life as a whole.
Lena, played by Natalie Portman is a biologist teaching at Johns Hopkins University. She has considered herself widowed for 12 months. Her husband, Kane, played by Oscar Isaac, has been missing in action since a Spec Ops mission gone awry within this Shimmer.
Inexplicably, he returns, but he is not the man Lena remembers. He is now a husk and the catalyst for Lena’s integration into the top-secret government operations along the fringe of the Shimmer’s borders.
Lena is abducted by its agents and driven by a need for answers to follow in her husband’s footsteps and explore the area beyond the shimmering border, tagging along with an all-female group of scientists and military personnel on the 12th expedition so far within this mysterious region.
While there is an immediate rapport between the fivesome, Annihilation’s decision to reveal who lives and dies from the start with a framing device wastes the characterization necessary to establish high stakes during this explicitly ill-fated mission.
Dr. Ventress, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who was responsible for profiling the crew, is graciously given all the lackluster lines so she has something to say.
Overtly stoic and jaded, she would otherwise have been an arbitrary character within the confines of the film. She is neither arbiter nor commander of this motley crew. Although Ventress shares Lena’s reasons for joining the mission, the script fails to give her any dimension outside the role of another expendable extra.
Ventress is, however, the mouthpiece for Annihilation’s larger philosophical quandaries: namely, whether the intent of this new life form is malignant or not. While guarding a watchtower surrendered to the Shimmer, Ventress questions the nature of suicide and self-destruction on a cellular level. Having come to believe that the cell is a fatalist expression of life, she gives credence to the possibly benign nature of the Shimmer. She does not see an exterminating angel in it, changing the DNA of the world it surrounds. She sees instead a means of spiritual and physical renaissance. But her musings fall short of selling this cataclysmic event as rapture.
These moments of humanizing Annihilation’s MacGuffin are also guilty of their expositional shoehorning. The special effects that primarily define this extraterrestrial are dazzling and aesthetically pleasing, but the methods of rationalizing the life form’s existence hardly complement its phenomena.
The film devolves at times into a sightseeing tour, grinding the plot to a halt so a character can briefly explain what is in plain view, usually in layman terms what any Biology 1001 student can grasp. This does not constitute meaningful epiphanies — the audience nods impatiently and waits, instead, for the show to go on.
Justifying the make-believe is a common problem within the science fiction genre. While the suspension of disbelief is paramount, it can prove devilishly difficult when cosmic beings are supposed to be taken seriously. Exposition becomes the bane of a film’s narrative if overdone, but this is where subtlety tips the scales, motivating the viewer to reconsider each scene for vindication.
Sadly, Annihilation is too ambiguous for its own good. The penchant on Garland’s part for acoustic guitar cannot save this film from further criticism.
Reverting to weary cords whenever all hope is lost contributes nothing when this is a pre-established tone. The soundtrack otherwise suits Annihilation wonderfully: tension is well orchestrated and heart stopping, although the buildup to the alien’s reveal is in equal parts anticlimactic and essential to the stakes Annihilation seeks to establish.
But the script’s preference for juggling its scientific reasoning and philosophical dilemmas leaves too many questions suspended without actual suspense. While the means of defeating this alien menace echo H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, it is a wholly underwhelming victory on humanity’s part.
Portman certainly sells her character. Her interactions with Isaac are probably the most honest scenes in a film struggling to humanize itself. Except, similar to its alien, Annihilation mistakes mirrors for windows.
Imitators cast no shadows and while Annihilation pantomimes the criteria for a stellar film, it never breaks the surface of its own universe.