Annihilation wants to be a big movie about big ideas — what we get is a flawed impersonation of one.
Annihilation, directed by Alex Garland. Screening at Somerville Theatre, AMC Assembly Row 12, and other cinemas.
By Neil Giordano
Annihilation, the new sci-fi thriller by writer-director Alex Garland, offers plenty of utter bafflement. This should be no surprise, given its origins in James Vandermeer’s high-concept sci-fi novel, which embraces epistemological mysteries. Unfortunately, much of the movie’s perplexity arises from the screenplay’s artless and cluttered narrative exposition. The rich source material is cast aside, so we have a story that isn’t quite sure what points it is supposed to bewildering us about. This wants to be big movie about big ideas — what we get is small celluloid potatoes.
The story concerns the mysterious “Area X” on the southern coast of the United States, a haunting and perhaps alien place of horror, wonder, and unknown origins. Kane (Oscar Isaac), an army commando, returns from a mission to the place, which shocks his wife, Lena (Natalie Portman), who long gave up hope that her man was still alive. But Kane is a shell of his former self; he is both physically ravaged and eerily placid in demeanor. Biologist Lena struggles to understand what has happened to Kane and discovers he was part of a team sent into Area X by the government’s secret program, known as the Southern Reach. She soon steps into the terra incognita itself, nicknamed the Shimmer because of its psychedelic/miasmic blend of unearthly light and baleful darkness. Keep in mind that all who have dared to enter the territory (in order to understand what is going on there) either vanish or end up dead. Kane is the first man to ever return.
Portman plays Lena close to the chest. The character is an introverted wall of blank stares and brusque affections of words. The figure is believable yet maintains a cool distance from the viewer. Isaac, however, dependably excellent, struggles to find the correct rhythmic approach to Kane’s small part (he’s mostly glimpsed in flashbacks or expiring silently on his deathbed). His unnecessary southern accent is distracting. Filling out the cast is a chilly Jennifer Jason Leigh as Dr. Ventress, who leads Lena and a team of other specialists on a mission into the Shimmer to answer the questions raised by Kane’s return. The only standout in the cast (perhaps) is Tessa Thompson (Creed, HBO’s Westworld), who brings a tender soulfulness to her small part as a physicist on the new team. She is the one who comes closest to unraveling some of what Area X has to offer to mankind.
Still, the problems with Annihilation are not so much in the characterizations or the performances as in the mediocre writing, which whiffs past the foreboding ideas at the story’s core. What we get instead is a mish-mash of gothic thriller, monster movie, and sentimental romance. This is a real shame: writer-director Garland was spot-on in his debut Ex Machina feature a few years ago. This was a small movie with big ideas: three characters grappling with the emotional vagaries and moral challenges of artificial intelligence. In Annihilation, Garland expends too much energy on the characters’ interrelationships rather than on Shimmer’s existentially deranging effect. The result is disappointingly conventional: a sappy story of lovers reuniting, reminiscent of a gender-flipped Orpheus and Eurydice, with Lena vying to bring Kane back to life. (A quest inexplicably set to the dulcet notes of CSN’s “Helplessly Hoping”.)
The novel contemplates the pain of mortality and end times, the limitations of language to articulate the truth, our helplessness in dealing with a thing that is unknowable and for which (to borrow a phrase from Vandermeer) “we lack the analogies.” The sheer terror of the ineffable — whether religious, eschatological, physical, or all of the above — would fit the vision of directors in the vein of Jodorowsky or even Terrence Malick. They would personify the brooding aura of Area X, the true protagonist of the story.
Not dealing with the philosophical context means that the epistemological enigmas at the center of the story fade away. The material demands the flourishes of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and its care for vexing unknowns. Here, the mysteries instead boil down to Lena repeatedly confessing: “I don’t know.” Elsewhere the dialogue sells its viewers short with sloppy and unnecessary conversations, a sign that perhaps other hands than Garland’s was at play here, the ‘suits’ striving to make the film conventional and accessible for the cineplex crowd. (This is Garland’s first studio feature).
Silence would have been more powerful than the scripts potted words. I found myself hoping against hope that the visual and sound design would provide much-needed aesthetic sophistication. But no go. Likewise, the director’s episodes of non-linear editing attempt to stir the pot, but they mostly come across as clumsy and ill-timed, rushing the film along in places where it desperately needed to linger. The Shimmer itself is visually rendered in prismatic and otherworldly splendor — the effect was mesmerizing and deserved to be pondered; but the movie didn’t give its characters time to do so. CGI isn’t enough to make a good film, but it was another missed opportunity to build emotional and narrative tension for the audience.
Neil Giordano teaches film and creative writing in Newton. His work as an editor, writer, and photographer has appeared in Harper’s, Newsday, Literal Mind, and other publications. Giordano previously was on the original editorial staff of DoubleTake magazine and taught at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.