Natalie Portman’s new film doesn’t have enough smarts or trippiness to make a big-screen excursion
Annihilation, from writer-director Alex Garland (Ex Machina), adapts the first book in Jim VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy but doesn’t really slip us into his “weird fiction”. This is more along the lines of 2016’s Arrival: eerie-sublime eco-sci-fi; an invasion by amoral aliens. With its lapses into hollowness and action-horror formula, there’s not enough smarts or trippiness in the end to make this a supremely uncanny big-screen excursion.
Lena (Natalie Portman) is a soldier-turned-cytologist—she’s gone from firing shells to studying cells. A year after her husband went MIA on a covert operation, he suddenly returns, wracked by illness; both are whisked off to a facility near Area X, a coastal region colonized by a giant “shimmer”. Soon, though her husband’s been the only known escapee, Lena decides she’ll join Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) on their trek to the lighthouse at the shimmer’s epicentre.
Lena’s life before and beyond the shimmer, often shown in flashbacks, seems oddly hollow—it’s not different enough in atmosphere or vibrancy from the rest of the film. The all-female team, by turns candid and factional, is a twist on the usual military-and-scientific ET-hunting team (see Aliens, Predators, etc.). But the initial picking-off of each member, one by one, night after night, is horror-flick-predictable. Some scenes come off more like CGI-paintings than filmmaking. And the frame story—Lena tells her debriefers and us what happened—dilutes the suspense and the finale’s power.
That shimmer is a vast iridescent sheen—like the colours on an oil slick—oozing upwards and steadily spreading out, engulfing more and more territory. The sense is one of colourful entrapment—imprism-ment, really. But what seems an eco-crisis (flora and fauna are grotesquely mutating, though inexplicably we never see any birds or insects) is more like a Darwinian-dreamland, an evolutionary Eden, where death can take on a horrific grandeur. There’s some grisly predation—metastasized nature’s red in fang and claw—but the clearest message here concerns the constancy of change. If only, before its wild ending, Annihilation didn’t offer so much of the same old, same old.
Directed by Alex Garland