ALEX GARLAND IS the director who brought us the extraordinary Ex Machina (and also exposed the world to Alicia Vikander). Ex Machina dramatized the chilling moment known as the singularity: when the machine becomes, essentially human. Mr. Garland has returned with his new movie: Annihilation.
It’s a movie with a problem: dismal audiences in the US and straight to Netflix here in Europe.
Annihilation submerges us into a world…an idea…where cellular reproduction…DNA…begins to go berserk. Is this a frightening take on what may be in store for humanity as it continues to muck with nature? Is man (even unconsciously) pulled toward self-destruction…as part of our human condition?
The story starts with the sudden and unexpected return of Kane (Oscar Isaac). He’s been gone for over a year on a super-secret mission. But now, much to the shock of his partner, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman), here he is: discombobulated, unaware of time and hemorrhaging. Garland pulls you deeper and deeper into the mystery of his disappearance. Kane was one of several soldiers who had dared to enter The Shimmer: a vast blurry force field that is slowly growing and that is proving impervious to all attempts as understanding it. Lena’s, perhaps guilt-laden, search for an antidote to her partner’s critical condition leads her to volunteer to a small (suicide?) science expedition: four (female) scientists who are prepared to brave entering The Shimmer.
Once in The Shimmer, things immediately begin to go awry. After a week in, the team feel they’ve been there for mere hours; they encounter strange beautiful, mutant growths that cling to walls and trees; other-worldly beasts attack out of nowhere, slowly picking them off. Why would Kane have signed up for what he must have known was a suicide mission? Similarly, why did Lena and the other members of the team sign up? They too must all have known they’d never return.
Garland layers mystery upon mystery and keeps turning up the heartbeats of tension, notch by agonizing notch.
But here’s the problem: all this layered tension, the fascinating build-up really has nowhere to go. The story does not build to some moment of insightful revelation. About an hour into the movie, the story begins to sag. Even Natalie Portman, bringing her most “whatthefuckisgoingon” face can’t contain the rising bathos. What began as a thought-provoking exploration of the way we mutually affect/infect others with our burdens and ‘sins’ runs aground with a director who seems to have become as lost as his plot and his characters.
Basically nothing begins to make sense. One rule of sci-fi (any fiction for that matter) is that there be enough credibility to drive belief. We’ve got to believe that no matter how fantastical, these characters could be real people experiencing these strange things. None of this pertains in Annihilation. As the questions mount (Is there a thematic reason why all the scientists are women? Why aren’t there more chimera creatures? Why didn’t they camp in the obvious secure place in The Shimmer?), everything soon begins to feel as artificial and trumped-up as the faux forest they inhabit.
The story slowly slips from “What’s going to happen next?” to “Where’s this story going?” And the answer, sadly, was a resolute, “Nowhere”
Garland seems to be a terribly thoughtful and talented director. Based on one movie. Let’s hope he’s not going to turn into that other one- note wonder, M. Night Shyamalan
ANNIHILATION. Dir: Alex Garland. Screenplay: Alex Garland (based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer). With: Natalie Portman. Jennifer Jason Leigh. Benedict Wong. Oscar Isaac. Cinematographer: Rob Hardy (Ex Machina). Production Designer: Mark Digby (Ex Machina)