Annihilation. Apart from the euphonious gallop of the word itself, there’s very little communicative in the title of what’s to come in Alex Garland’s new exploratory sci-fi film. If anything, the movie may be most remembered for being a women-led example in a genre which has little to rightfully compare; for every 1 Ripley we get we seem flush with 200 John Connors and a handful of Riddicks. In an extremely loose inspiration drawn from Jeff VanderMeer’s brilliant novel, Garland seems to have mutated its intentions and purpose as much as the shifting, genetically fractalized environment of Area X.
In the absence of a breathless, knee-vibrating diatribe about the many wonders of VanderMeer’s resplendent novel, which combines a Lovecraftian mythopoetic dread with an extraordinarily-voiced and characterized, pragmatic, competently miserable biologist protagonist, Annihilation serves the distinct duty of cramming a heady gumbo of internal narration and ego-death into as much of a popcorn flick as can be mustered from it—which is, to say, a meager one, with barely a whiff of its placental origins left.
The film introduces us to Lena, played by Natalie Portman, a biology teacher at John Hopkins. Her establishing scene finds her relating a Ben-Steinian explanation of cellular division to the class, as well as the audience, insisting that we internalize this motif for later (over-)use. We know that her husband has died, or disappeared, and that she has been holing herself up for home rehabilitation exercises on the weekend to work through her year-long grief. When a biologist is frustrated and depressed, she paints her bedroom cranking “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills & Nash (no, really).
When Lena’s husband returns, she is shaken, shocked, and confused. A military operative off on some secretive exercise, she can’t reconcile the man she knows with this husk-seeming Oscar Isaac sitting dazed and broken at the dining room table. An ambulance to the hospital with her spouse becomes the tumbled domino which will eventually introduce her to the site of his downfall, and she’s rushed into leading a team into an anomalous sectioned-off bit of swampland, dubbed “Area X” and presided over by a military-science initiative known as The Southern Reach (from which VanderMeer’s trilogy gets its name).
The latter half or 2/3rds of the movie is entirely focused on the plodding journey of this troop of women, all of whom (sans Lena, whose past military training converts her to pinch-hitter status) have been duly preparing for their probably-doomed voyage. Area X surrounds itself with a visual enclosure dubbed “The Shimmer,” doubly serving as a title card (the film has several of these, the story being divided into chapters in the most superficial of ways, though the book employs them craftily), and soon after entering it, the group encounters exponentially weirder anomalies, reference several far superior science fiction films, and glibly comment on their status as “damaged women” (no, really).
I don’t precisely know what tone Garland was striving for with this. The plot is too dumbed-down to be considered defiantly creative, the characters too cookie-cutter to be considered revolutionary characterizations of women in film, and the violence too sudden and out of place to successfully emphasize a madness-feeling sense of horror. Natalie Portman is…Natalie Portman. She’s precise, humorless, yet unconvincingly above-it-all. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Ghostbuster-name-sounding psychologist Dr. Ventress and delivers a more attentive and absorbing performance, though her motives are never explained or explored beyond a single throwaway anecdote cattily shared by a member of the troop to another (no, really).
Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson play a paramedic and a physicist, respectively, and while their personalities try to work overtime to inject levity or charm into the work, neither is given enough space to carry Annihilation’s enigmatic potential. Spoiler alert: people in Annihilation die. Area X is lethal and bizarre, but nary a death, save possibly for one, approach a satisfying purpose.
The movie is quite beautiful, truth be told, and Area X’s soap-bubble-hued cancerous greenery creates eye-catching terrariums to be stomped around ponderously with guns. Time and again, the visual design kept me focused on the screen, and there are some significantly memorable visual set pieces and themes that will probably lodge into your memory long after you’ve forgotten about another of cinema’s confused suffering wives looking for answers.
I want to say that my read of Annihilation, the film, is damaged by my committed appreciation to its source material, a series of elaborate, mesmerizing, often unexpectedly profound books. The film is a death knell for fans of those books looking for a tenth of what they love about them reflected on the screen but, I even think, thin as the adaptation’s mysteries are, the bulk of neophytes will equally find themselves bored or confused. Natalie Portman’s performance misses the logical, desperately insightful drives of the original character, opting for extended ruts of on-screen confusion, repetitions of the phrase “I don’t know,” scrambling to prove her intelligent purpose to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s practiced, capable, and clued-in scorn. She doesn’t convince either of us.