Movie Review – Annihilation
Alex Garland was nominated last year for an Oscar. He was up for Best Writing, Original Screenplay for his film Ex Machina. He didn’t win but his film did receive the Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects. Ex Machina was also his directorial debut. The British filmmaker follows up his debut with this sophomore effort, which again is science-fiction and horror. It’s an adaptation of the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer, an author from central Pennsylvania. The story was inspired by nature hikes VanderMeer used to take. This story is about five women who go hiking into the woods and encounter strange and scary things, including monsters. In that, it’s not unlike Lake Placid (1999), The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Descent (2005), The Ruins (2008), or even something like Jurassic Park (1993).
There is even a vibe akin to something like The Lost City of Z (2016), except the explorers or the people on the expedition are instead all women and there is this supernatural and even alien invasion aspect to it. The alien invasion though isn’t like Independence Day (1996). It’s more on the level of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) or Slither (2006) where the invasion is more genetic and on a cellular level that ultimately puts it just as much into the body-horror genre as it is this monster movie. Unfortunately, none of the body-horror stuff makes sense or at least none of it is consistent from person-to-person. There is some kind of pattern, but the connections in that pattern aren’t obvious. It all feels like an excuse for psychedelic and trippy images, the likes of which haven’t been seen since Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Natalie Portman (Jackie and Black Swan) stars as Lena, a biologist and professor at Johns Hopkins. She mainly studies cancer cells. She’s seen reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. She doesn’t have any kids, but she is married. Her husband is a soldier in the army, a sergeant named Kane, played by Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis and X-Men: Apocalypse). She was in the army too, which is where she met Kane. When Kane disappears for a year inside a Florida forest and swamp where a meteorite hit, she and a group of women are sent inside the forest to figure out what happened.
It has to be pointed out that Portman was in the Star Wars prequels and Isaac is featured in the current Star Wars sequels, so now these two play a married couple. Isaac doesn’t get to bring any of the charm that he’s brought in the Star Wars films or even in Ex Machina in which he co-starred. Here, Isaac is more or less just a sexy prop, dangled like a gorgeous carrot for Portman’s character to chase after. This is mainly Portman’s film, as we watch her grief and strength.
Initially, she’s reminiscent of Amy Adams’ character in Arrival (2016), except Portman’s character isn’t as passive. Adams’ character is also strong but not as aggressive or as masculine as Portman’s character. This is perhaps because Lena was in the army and you believe she was a soldier. Like Adams’ character, Lena is a scientist, but her goal isn’t to learn or communicate with whatever alien life is there. Studying it is part of her goal, but only in as much as a soldier needs to study his enemy in order to defeat it.
There is a subplot involving Lena having an affair that was unneeded and didn’t pay off. The way the movie ends, it’s meant to signify that Garland wanted this movie ultimately to be about the relationship between Lena and Kane. As such, I understand why Lena’s affair would be an interesting turn to take, but it doesn’t really comment on their relationship or say anything about it by the end.
There’s also some misconceived notions in here as well. Lena talks to one of her team members, a psychologist named Ventress, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight and Dolores Claiborne). They talk about suicide versus self-destruction. Ventress distinguishes between the two, but the distinction is never really clarified. Yet, intention has something to do it. Lena is curious about the intentions of Kane, which we never really learn.
Like Ex Machina, this movie ends with the introduction of a new life. In Ex Machina, that new life is mechanical or robotic in nature. Here, the new life is cellular and biological, as well as extraterrestrial. In Ex Machina, that new life is designed, which could be interpreted as a horrifying creation myth. Here, the new life might not be designed but is more random, which would make this movie more a horror-film take on the Big Bang Theory.
Gina Rodriguez (Deepwater Horizon and Jane the Virgin) co-stars as Anya, a paramedic who becomes the most paranoid member of the team. Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok and Creed) also co-stars as Josie, the physicist who provides a lot of the exposition and who becomes Poison Ivy by the end. They give good performances with Rodriguez being the most stand out. She’s also at the center of a chilling scene that’s probably the scariest thing I’ve seen in a year.
The visual images provided here are very psychedelic and trippy. It’s beautiful for the most part. The tone though is ultimately terrifying and keeps you on the edge of your seat. The weird conclusion was interesting to watch but goes on for too long and leads to a predictable final scene.
Rated R for violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 55 mins.