Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Bloody Images, Language and some Sexuality
Directed by: Alex Garland
Written by: Alex Garland
(based on the novel ANNIHILATION by Jeff VanderMeer)
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, Sonoya Mizuno & David Gyasi
Going into 2018, ANNIHILATION was easily one of my most anticipated films of the year. Besides a high concept premise and a very intriguing trailer, the main reason for my excitement came from the presence of director/screenwriter Alex Garland. This man helmed one of my favorite science fiction films of the past decade: EX MACHINA. Needless to say, I was more than a little eager to see what his sophomore directorial effort would look like. While I won’t claim that ANNIHILATION is perfect and on the same level as EX MACHINA (for a couple of reasons that will soon become clear), this is a damn fine combination of arthouse storytelling, thought-provoking science fiction, and disturbing horror!
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist struggling with serious grief. A year ago, her soldier husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) disappeared on a top-secret government mission. Lena’s trying to mentally cope with the harsh reality that he might be dead, when a near-comatose Kane randomly shows up at her door. One strange conversation and a nosebleed later…and Kane is whisked away to an unknown government facility. Because they can’t have any witnesses, Lena is held at the facility with him and (in an effort to save her dying husband) volunteers to venture into the strange shimmering area where her husband originally went. Biological nightmares, thick tension, and bizarre Lovecraftian horror ensues.
ANNIHILATION is a strange beast of a film. The trailer sold it as something far more straightforward than it actually is. The narrative is spun in a non-linear fashion that flashes forward to a surviving Lena relating her tale to a group of baffled government officials, shows us what occurred within “The Shimmer,” and also flashes back to Lena’s relationship with her husband. In less talented hands, this approach might have wound up as a cheap cop-out that spoils key moments early on. In Alex Garland’s hands, it’s a brilliant way of piecing together a weird cerebral puzzle for the viewer.
This film nails its smart science-fiction and grisly horror in equal measure. I won’t go into specific details, because one could easily spoil some of the film’s huge twists. The scariest horror bits easily belong to encounters with a heavily mutated bear. There is one sequence in the film that might very well rank in my scariest movie scenes of all-time. You’ll definitely know it when you see it and an aftermath conversation makes that moment ten times more chilling. ANNIHILATION also knows when to keep its monsters in the shadows and when to showcase them in their crazy mutated glory.
This film isn’t a simple creature feature though, because there is other disturbing stuff happening within “The Shimmer.” Some details are given in scientific conversations that confirm worst fears and elaborate on grim theories. The film never feels the need to specifically spell everything out for the audience though and it expects you to use your brain while watching the strange story evolve. ANNIHILATION’s final third contains one of the biggest “holy shit” moments that I’ve seen in recent years. This revelation will likely result in many debates about the film’s open-to-interpretation ending. One of the story’s most terrifying concepts is glimpsed early on (The Shimmer seems to cause memory loss), but is never returned to again. Fully utilizing this concept might have pushed things further into nightmarish territory and made the film even smarter. Sadly, it was completely abandoned for a more straightforward-ish narrative.
As far as the acting goes, things get a bit mixed in the performances. Natalie Portman is good as the main character who’s clearly struggling with grief and all sorts of newfound knowledge. This causes her to react in complicated ways during certain scenarios. Oscar Isaac doesn’t receive a ton of screen time, but makes a big impact in what he delivers. Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny are serviceable as the supporting scientists. The weakest performance comes from Jennifer Jason Leigh. While some viewers might potentially argue that the bland acting was just in relation to her character, I’d argue that it was just bland acting and this particular character felt wooden as a result of it.
ANNIHILATION nails its storytelling, delivers cool spectacle, and brings forth nightmarish images that will likely flash before my eyes when this movie gets mentioned in casual conversations. The film delivers many amazing qualities (especially in its horror concepts being utterly terrifying and its sci-fi ideas being absolutely brilliant). However, the film occasionally drops the ball in a couple of missed opportunities (one concept is completely abandoned and one key performance is hollow). If you dig strange deliberately paced science-fiction and otherworldly Lovecraftian horror, you’ll find a lot of love in ANNIHILATION.