MOVIE REVIEW: Annihilation

(Image: The New York Times)

(Image: The New York Times)


Excusing the singular gender assignment, the term “the thinking man” is an often-used lead of a possessive description aimed to make something sound more enlightened than simple-minded.  When you really think about it, maybe over a drink or two using the label in question for films as this 2009 editorial list did for Rotten Tomatoes, the term is just an euphemism for less action requiring more brains and patience.  That’s rarely ever a bad thing, unless you’re a studio executive worried about box office earning potential after reading reactions to test screenings on an upcoming movie.

Before it even debuted, Annihilation, wunderkind filmmaker Alex Garland’s big studio follow-up to Ex Machina, was labeled “too intellectual” and “too complicated.”  Come what may, the film is quite exactly those two qualities and then some.  However, what might be a smearing hindrance for some is a emblem of brilliancy to others.  Because the film could land either way, the intrigue and anticipation surrounding Annihilation couldn’t be better.  You will undoubtedly get your mind’s worth and your money’s worth stepping up the cerebral challenge of this film.

Loosely adapting the first 2014 novel of author Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, aggressive “thinking man’s science fiction” of the highest order on display.  A mysterious meteorite crashes in a flash at the base of a Floridian lighthouse.  Its emanating incandescence suggests it is more than a rock.  Enter Lena (headlining Academy Award winner Natalie Portman), a woman coming back into conscientiousness under quarantine protocols surrounded by small crowd in hazmat suits.  One of them, a man named Lomax (Doctor Strange’s Benedict Wong), steps forward to debrief Lena with questions to ascertain what she remembers.  When Lomax tells Lena she has been gone several months in what feels like mere days for her, the coldly frazzled woman begins to tell her story.

Just where was she?  The Johns Hopkins University biologist and former Army soldier was part of an military and scientific expedition team sent to study an otherworldly phenomenon that has grown from the meteorite impact.  Dubbed “The Shimmer” and falsely reported to the public as a quarantined environmental disaster by the watchful government forces, an unknown translucent dome of gently flowing energy has engulfed one small town and growing amount of coastal mileage.  In the months the enigma has been studied, only one person who has entered The Shimmer has ever walked out and lived to tell the tale before Lena.    

That person was Lena’s husband Kane, played by Oscar Isaac, a man she thought was dead for a year.  Shaken by what he saw, Kane was a covert operative survivor now bedridden and clinging to life against multiple organ failure.  Determined to discover personal and scientific truths that may save her husband, Lena and the all-women team (The Hateful Eight Oscar nominee Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Thor: Ragnarok force Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez of Deepwater Horizon, and Tuva Novotny of Eat Pray Love) ventured into the glossy bubble and its layers of warped colorific shadings.  The team increasingly encounters unexplained biological and botanical mysteries and harrowing risks of danger within the lush arboreal setting dominated by a coniferous woodland fringe and a floral swampland interior.

True to most every compelling science fiction film, things inevitably go wrong for Lena and her fellow volunteers.  Deeper into the reshaped ecosystem, they maddeningly gravitate to the conclusion that something will kill them or they will go crazy and kill each other.  It is under these startling circumstances that Natalie Portman exhibits her enormous level of resolve, poise, and sullen toughness.  Several further glimpses within the main flashback may reveal softened and happier domestic times before the mission and her husband’s departure, but Portman’s steely coiled core never frays.  

Annihilation has a wealth of stellar qualities and cinematic achievements going for it that drop jaws and astonish.  Adapting the source novel thinly and to his own whim, writer-director Alex Garland daringly stretches the garish limits of free-form science fiction and creates jarring moments of horror and bewilderment.  The visual effects supervised by Ex Machina Oscar winner Andrew Whitehurst create a decadent kaleidoscope of intensity.  The edge-of-your-seat intrigue is undeniable for quickening heartbeats and scratching heads culminating in a trippy and operatic climax.

With its ambitious headiness, clear areas of problematic fault also come forth in Annihilation.  The wild visuals, as impressive as they are, fail to stir or carry a strong underlying emotional core.  The same can be said for the ill-fitting mix between folksy acoustic cues and electronic dirge from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s musical choices.  Garland’s films is cold in that regard where, even with Portman’s strong lead performance, these characters and the tones they are given never fully create endearment beyond the external wonderment.  Unintentional laughs from cringes take away moments that should dazzle and shake us.  The cerebral result is an aptly polarizing film that will divide viewers on those aforementioned planes of intellectual complication.

LESSON #1: THE DEFINITIONS OF “ANNIHILATION”-- Two meanings can be wrestled with from the film title’s word choice.  First, is “the state or fact of being completely destroyed or obliterated.”  The second gets more complicated in physics to read “the combination of a particle and its antiparticle that results in the subsequent total conversion of the particles into energy.”  Like the simplicity of the universe, this film’s events are out to either destroy or create.  Enjoy the suspense.

LESSON #2: THE FRAGILE RHYTHM OF BIOLOGY-- Lena’s career work with cancer tumors stresses the cadence of mitosis and the scientific beauty found within the universal patterns of cellular structure and its nearly godly order.  Even when impossible and alarming mutations and genetic adaptations are observed within the mysteries of The Shimmer, the parallels to the rhythmic flow of life inside everything never wavers.  More on that in Lesson #3.

LESSON #3: LIFE’S INEVITABLE SELF-DESTRUCTION-- The tempo of any living thing has a programmed ticking clock draining to its eventual end.  The science backed by Lena will you that we humans age and die because of flaws written in our overlapping genes combining with the consequences of our self-inflicted lifestyle choices accelerating that process.  The latter range from the physiological like diet and exercise to the emotional and mental stresses like fear and hate.  “Natural causes” be damned, the threats of Annihilation accelerate that programming and clock.