Film Review: "Annihilation" expertly toes the line between brilliance and failure
There might be no other film genre that walks the line between brilliance and failure quite like science fiction. While often visually stunning and thought-provoking, the intelligent aspirations and occasional disconnect between story and substance of such films make them just as likely to fall flat. It is not without bravery then, that Alex Garland (Ex Machina) has made science fiction his bread and butter, with Annihilation being the author-come-filmmaker’s most recent journey into a world where knowledge meets fantasy.
Based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation follows a group of female researchers as they enter Area X, a quarantine zone inside a Florida national park that is being consumed by an unknown alien force, referred to as the “shimmer”. While the group is tasked with reaching the genesis of the shimmer - a coastal lighthouse; the fact that no other exploratory teams have returned after entering the zone, essentially making the journey a potential suicide mission, is not lost on them. For biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) however, the mission takes on further meaning as her military husband (Oscar Isaac) is the only person to survive entering the shimmer, though only barely. She enters with the hope of discovering what happened to him and his colleagues.
True to form, Annihilation had its brush with failure early on. Paramount Pictures, the original producers of the film were so concerned with its intellectual ambition that it refrained from giving it a cinematic release, opting instead to sell the film to Netflix. In a taste of what is likely the future of movie distribution, while it had a short release in North America cinemas, Australia had to wait until the film arrived on the streaming service before being able to watch it.
Though it is a shame to be unable to experience a well-made film in the environment of a cinema, after viewing Annihilation, it is easy to see why Paramount may have had concerns. Though the story is simple in its form, the films interweaving themes of religion, memory and our nature as humans can be perplexing. String this all together with DNA mixing and cell regeneration and there’s little doubt a casual moviegoer may lose their way. Despite this, however, Garland manages to keep the film focused, balancing both story and lofty ideas well enough to keep things from becoming stale or cringe-inducing. I say well enough though as there are some missteps, particularly in the way of dialogue, with on the nose exposition and a few character interactions that provide some laughable quotes being detrimental. This is likely the price paid as a filmmaker to create something with a meaning that might resonate with viewers long after they have logged out of their Netflix accounts, but Garland hasn’t quite pulled this off as well as the sci-fi’s greats Annihilation aims to follow.
Visually, Annihilation is beautiful, if a little over-produced, much in the same vein as its modern contemporaries (think Arrival or Under the Skin). The CGI renders of plants and animals with mixed DNA structures that exist within the shimmer are stunning and creative, giving life to the world Garland is trying to create on screen. The soundtrack as well, though similar to other contemporary sci-fi features, does enough to distinguish itself, particularly during an end sequence that blurs the lines between music video and movie. Acting, while great across the cast, takes a back seat to the ideas Garland is trying to present us with, meaning that there is little to write home about here. Portman does well with her stoic portrayal of a soldier turned professor, but the rest of the cast is given little opportunity to present us with any range beyond blissful ignorance, all-consuming fear, and blank-faced detachment.
In the end, viewers are left with an ambiguity that invites further discussion and interpretation rather than any revelation as to what was just witnessed. For those willing to follow on, this is Annihilation’s reward, but it’s this ambition that also keeps it hamstrung. Collectively, it comes together to form a film with all the hallmarks of a sci-fi great, but misses the mark just slightly. Thankfully though, it still sits on the right side of brilliant, being a well-paced, well directed and well-produced package whose biggest failure is that it is potentially too similar to its peers while trying so hard to be different.