Annihilation, directed by Alex Garland
Reviewed by Kristy Puchko
Alex Garland carved out a reputation as a stellar screenwriter with cerebral sci-fi fare like the zombie thriller 28 Days Later, the space-set adventure Sunshine, and the clone-centered romance Never Let Me Go. Then he shocked and awed critics and audiences alike with his directorial debut, Ex Machina. The high-tech fairy tale showed a crisp visual style that played beautifully with Garland’s heady, philosophizing script, and was roundly proclaimed one of the best films of 2014. So it was with great anticipation that critics awaited his follow-up, Annihilation. And while many have breathlessly sung the praises of Garland’s loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, this critic was left cold.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, former soldier turned cellular biologist who goes on a dangerous expedition in hopes of saving her ill husband (Oscar Isaac). He was mysteriously wounded in “the Shimmer,” a mysterious contagion that’s spreading unstoppably through an American swampland. To uncover this anomaly’s secrets, the biologist, a psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a physicist (Tessa Thompson), an anthropologist (Tuva Novotny), and a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez), traverse through the glittery barrier (that looks like the glimmer of spilled gasoline) and into the heart of darkness. In their quest to discover the cause of the Shimmer, they will lose time, suffer brutal losses, and witness wonders both beautiful and repellant.
Out the gate, Annihilation is less accessible than Garland’s previous work. Its visuals are less crisp, more meandering and messy. Its dialogue is more clipped, less casual or playful. Even explaining its plot feels tricky. And despite the collective charisma Garland might glean from his talented ensemble, the filmmaker cuts such an opportunity off at the knees. The film’s tone is firmly solemn, with only fleeting spikes of panic, making for a muted experience. Portman is painfully restrained in the lead role, looking upon biological impossibilities and mutilated corpses with the same distant curiosity. Lena is a stoic figure whose inner world is revealed not through outbursts of emotion or heartfelt dialogue, but hokey flashbacks that clumsily intrude into the narrative, killing its flow and tension. All this choked me off from becoming emotionally invested with Annihilation’s impassive protagonist. Thankfully the supporting players bring some spark.
Leigh offers an enticing edge as a doctor harboring a dark drive. Thompson, who dazzled with a radiant confidence in Dear White People and Thor: Ragnarok, goes against her niche, playing frightened and demure. Yet she yields chills in a lovely but unnerving scene of self-discovery. Isaac, whose roguish charm and intense gaze was a dizzying asset in Ex Machina, is given little to do here but look forlorn or crazed. Meanwhile, Rodriguez proves the film’s most mesmerizing performer. The moment she steps on screen with a crooked grin and a cavalier attitude, I wanted to follow her plucky and proudly queer heroine anywhere. In action scenes, she shows an electrifying tenacity. In quieter moments, she displays tenderness edged with anxiety. And in the film’s most disturbing sequence, she gives a show-stopping performance that demands Rodriguez get a big, flashy vehicle of her own. Sadly, her screen time is all too brief, leaving us again and again with lackluster Lena.
As someone who went positively gaga over Ex Machina, I predicted that I’d adore Annihilation. Fans of Garland’s work will recognize his dark brand of science fiction and bleak themes about the hubris and inanity of humanity. But by keeping his heroine and her cohorts so restrained, he barred me from connecting to the film on an emotional level. Intellectually, I could appreciate his challenging message about human nature. I registered the tension and terror he attempted to build with flowers that grow like tumors, gators that sprout endless teeth, and a howling beast straight out of the most hellish nightmare. In eerie moments, the film’s dreamy dark vibe reminded me of Jonathan Glazer’s challenging and chilling Under the Skin. But unlike that sci-fi thriller, this one never had a point where I sunk into its spell. Save for one.
There is one sequence in Annihilation that had me by the throat. Garland leans away from his stoic protagonist, and into full-on fear. Trapped in a tiny room, the film finally feels fittingly claustrophobic, considering its premise. We in the theater are trapped, like these women. There is no seeming escape. Like them we can feel our hearts thump thickly, a panic building as a horror too wild and unreal unfolds before our very eyes. At long last, Garland doesn’t squander the tension by cutting away to a new day or a safe flashback. Instead, he makes us sit in this place of stinking, terrible terror. Then masterfully cracks into its conclusion with a bloody, stomach-churning blow. If the rest of the film could have been half as riveting as this sequence, I too would have been in awe of Annihilation.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com