When you try too hard to create a sci-fi masterpiece, you eventually direct a film exactly like Annihilation (2018).
Alex Garland is quite a polarizing director; a status he obtained after making only two movies. When Ex Machina (2015)d debuted, an arresting essay on the inevitable clash between humans and AI, some viewers were flabbergasted, while others… well, let’s say didn’t grow fond of the effort. Indeed, Ex Machina (2015) was the contemplative kind of science fiction, much in the vibe of Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009) or Sunshine (2007). But what Garland convincingly delivered was the fodder for the brain.
Garland pushed the envelope even further in his second film entitled Annihilation (2018). He operates within the same genre, albeit this time the outcome is a mixed bag at best, rather leaning toward a major letdown.
Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a scientist who is called to investigate a strange phenomenon called shimmer that occurred somewhere in the U.S. Upon arriving at the site, Lena learns about an expedition team that embarks on a journey into the unknown. Soon, the crew learns that this strange sphere covering the land hides a terrifying mystery.
The thing that turned out to be an insurmountable obstacle to Garland is writing a script – one that grips the viewer, yet also flows at the same impeccable pace as Ex Machina (2015). Frankly, Annihilation (2018) struggles right from the start.
The fate of the scientists is revealed in an interrogation of Lena who lists all the casualties of the expedition. Knowing that Natalie Portman’s character constitutes the lone survivor of whatever she sees or experiences in the mystic zone, deprives the supporting characters of their appeal. And the only unknown, supposedly gluing us to the screen, is the nagging question – what actually happened in that shiny dome?
Optimistic is what I would call this approach to building suspense. After the revealing intro, Annihilation (2018) was already hanging by a thread. But Alex Garland sets to work, and the crew is dispatched into the shimmer zone. Proceedings put emphasis on the exploration of cosmic horror that’s admittedly impressive. The sphere changes structure of all living things, transforms them into horrid nightmares straight from the paintings of Zdzislaw Beksinski, and The Cathedral by Tomasz Baginski. Moreover, the shimmer messes up their DNA and ability of clear thinking of the scouting team, eventually leading to multiple frictions and emotional numbness of the characters.
Experiencing the gallery of horrors – and expect some serious nightmare fuel material including a human grown into a patchwork of a mutated bear – surely comes as a pay-off. Garland nonetheless toils to keep the mystery riveting. His narrative drags because Annihilation (2018) lacks punch. We follow the crew, witness the harrowing ordeal put in front of them, however, Garland blurs the actual explanation way, way too heavily.
On top of that comes the ending, which feels like a half-baked attempt to instigate control over the chaotic plot after more than an hour of strolling around. Garland aims for a gargantuan mind-blow, one that would give philosophical meaning to Annihilation (2018). Such a gratifying ending would have constituted a fair pay-off for the stretched-out “guts” of the film. I’ll admit that the acid trip’s served by Rob Hardy’s incredible cinematography means pure joy to watch and listen to, yet it also fails to deliver the shivers – and answers – that Garland so desperately needs. In the end, you might only sigh that it’s finally over.
On the bright side, Annihilation (2018) does actually contain a few praiseworthy parts. The absolute highlight of the film is the aforementioned bear scene, in which a horrifically transformed creature with a human voice terrorizes the crew. Among the numerous terrors encountered in the shimmer, Garland presents an impressive array, and he’s clearly all into cosmic horrors that Annihilation (2018) boldly explores.
Natalie Portman deserves applause too. She keeps her character complex and convincing despite the plot’s being drenched in confusion. Compared to everyone else appearing on screen, Portman manages to construct her own thing here, one I thoroughly enjoyed to see unravel. Among the merits of Annihilation (2018) I should also mention the soundtrack by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. A calming guitar theme proves to be an unexpected choice, but one fitting the film’s eerie aura.
Where does it all leave Annihilation (2018) then?
Well, there will be viewers, who’ll fall in love with Annihilation (2018). Its murky script, with its faltering sense or clear direction, might appeal to those, who enjoy science fiction going bonkers. To me personally, it went nuts. But I also can’t help but feel disappointed by Alex Garland’s second feature. The premise of the film seemed like an instant classic, an Alien (1979) kind, but a lot more trippy. The final outcome is trippy indeed, but most of the time it’s also boring.
Explore other awesome sci-fi mind-benders – read our picks for top cosmic horrors of all time.
Hate Grade: 5.5/10
Director: Alex Garland
Writer: Alex Garland, Jeff VanderMeer (based on a novel by)
Composer: Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow
Cinematography: Rob Hardy