Special Effects: B+
Judging by the trailers, you might expect Annihilation to be . . . kind of dumb. An alligator with shark’s teeth? What is this, a Sharktapus SyFy Channel sequel that somehow got a theatrical release?
It wouldn’t be far off – just “enhanced” thematically for the slightly more cerebral set. “Slightly” being the operative word: when we first learn that Lena (Natalie Portlan) is a biologist professor, she’s teaching a college class about how cells multiply in terms so basic she might as well be speaking to nine-year-olds. Still, the students hang on her every word and scribble in their notebooks. Because it’s a college class, you see!
Annihilation is written and directed by Alex Garland, whose previous film, Ex Machina, was inexplicably hailed by many critics as an original vision, its broad derivativeness mysteriously overlooked. Calling something "derivative" isn't always fair, as it can be applied to literally any story, but there are also levels, and Ex Machina did it a high capacity. Annihilation is by contrast not an original script, and although I never read the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, by all accounts this adaptation radically alters it -- and by necessity of form: the narrative of the novel strictly speaking is un-filmable.
Not that it matters. Does Annhilation work on its own terms? The validity, or necessity, of its own terms may be up for debate, but I would say that yes, it does. The finished product is like a cross between 2001: A Space Oddesy, Sunshine (which Garland also wrote, incidentally) and Alien, with a climactic sequence that might well be great to watch while high. It's mesmerizing and mysterious and unsettling and beautiful, and honestly would have worked just as well as a short film: start with the apparent meteorite hitting the lighthouse at the beginning; end with that last bit. Granted, nobody watches film shorts. I'm not sure many more are watching this movie but whatever.
Here's what I love about it. Annihilation's principal cast is nearly all women. It's worth supporting for that reason alone, but it also makes for a much different movie than if these characters had all been men. The way the story explains it is the previous teams were all culled from military, by dint of averages making them all men; this time they are sending in scientists, which yields more women, I guess? Never mind how many more scientists are actually men, but there you are. The leader, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is a psychologist. Others include a physicist (Tessa Thompson), a paramedic (Gina Rodriguez) and a surveyor (Tuva Novotny). Oscar Isaac plays Lena's husband, missing for a year after his own excursion into the shimmer and recently reappeared mysteriously and out of sorts, and he gets no more screen time than any of the women. He spends much of it unconscious on a cot. To be honest, the scenes where he's awake and disoriented aren't Isaac's best work.
Still, the concept is interesting enough, if fundamentally preposterous: the "shimmer" covering a wide area around the lighthouse hit by the meteorite is creating an otherworldly ecosystem in which, because of "DNA refraction," different species are taking on each other's characteristics and sort of fusing with each other -- hence the alligator with shark's teeth. In another filmmaker's hands you would expect a whole lot more chaotic action, but Garland focuses on its mystery, and on its psychological effects.
To its credit, Annihilation delves into the truly fantastical sparingly, showing us what could be characterized as monster creatures maybe three times. This also makes for some deeply unsettling images, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. Trees that grow trunks into the shape of human forms are very well rendered and, although they appear in an otherwise green and lush environment, they really gave me the creeps. And a bear-like creature that takes on the deathly-distorted skull-like facial features of one of its human victims might just give me nightmares.
It would be off-base to call Annihilation a "thriller," though. It's kind of everything, which is one of its problems (to judge by its iMDB page, it's an "adventure drama fantasy horror mystery sci-fi thriller"). This is a movie that can't quite decide what it wants to be, its many detours through "the shimmer" just a road put in place to get us to that trippy sequence at the end, which itself offers no concrete answers. It's just an elaborate setup for the fairly predictable reveal at the very last second of the film.
Still, the characters are compelling, occasionally patronizing dialogue notwithstanding; and the production design is impressive. The biggest surprise may be the special effects, which turn out to be the best thing about the movie -- the trailer made it look like it might be filled with hokey-looking cross-bred animals, but they actually turn out to be well rendered. I just kept wondering what a real-life biologist might be thinking in the audience while watching this movie, probably rolling their eyes constantly. For everyone else, it might easily seem deceptively "intellectual" -- or at least entertaining. Annihilation has that going for it, for sure: even with less action than expected, there are no lulls. This is one of those ridiculous stories made better by being told well.