Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
Alex Garland had already achieved success as an author (The Beach) and a screenwriter (28 Days Later…, Never Let Me Go) when he directed his first film, 2015’s Ex Machina. The film was universally praised, earning Garland his first Oscar nomination for its screenplay and pretty much the freedom to choose his next project. His choice is Annihilation, the open-for-interpretation first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. Garland has admitted that the film he made is more an adaptation of his subjective experience of reading the book than a straight-forward adaptation and a result is a movie that both hits and misses, but ultimately challenges the audience in a positive way.
The movie quickly introduces us to Lena (known in the novel only as “the biologist”), played by Natalie Portman. Lena is a former army soldier currently working as a biology professor at Johns Hopkins University. Her husband, also in the army, left on a mission a year ago and has not returned. When he does return suddenly, it quickly becomes clear that he is not himself. Whisked away to a secret scientific/military compound, Lena learns that some time ago, an asteroid crashed to Earth and created a kind of glimmering dome that they call “The Shimmer.” The Shimmer is expanding around an area called “Area X” and the fear is that it will eventually cover the entire planet. Multiple military operations have been sent in to try and discover what is at the center of it, but no one has ever returned until Lena’s husband wandered home.
Hoping to understand what has happened to her husband, who is now in a coma, Lena joins a team of scientists on the next mission into Area X. Inside the Shimmer, they discover some unique animals and plant life that seem to be hybrids of different species. They also discover video evidence of the crazy things that happened to the expeditions before them and soon realize that only one of two things likely happened to them: either they went crazy and killed each other, or were killed by some kind of beast living within Area X. Both of these become obstacles they must face as they attempt to reach the lighthouse at the center of the zone.
The movie’s premise itself begets some unique visuals and the movie certainly delivers. Some of these visuals are grotesque, others are beautiful. And the images get exponentially more stunning as the team journeys deeper towards the center of Area X. What is first thought to be destruction, Lena soon begins to understand via the powers at work within The Shimmer as “making something new,” and this progression of visuals is Garland’s way of telling us that creation is much more beautiful than destruction.
Aside from the visuals, one of the supreme highlights of the movie is its score. The music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury drives the adventure forward, feeling almost otherworldly itself, especially in film’s fascinating finale.
Whereas the final act of Annihilation is terrifically entertaining, the journey to get there is not always as compelling. The set up is rushed with little attention paid to the gathering of the team at the story’s center. With the exception of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Dr. Ventress, we only meet the rest of the main players in one quick scene where they introduce themselves to Lena around a table. The actors playing them give good enough performances and a few more details are dished out in a blatantly expositional row through a swamp partway through their journey, but the characters never feel fleshed out much beyond the names that they went by in the novel (psychiatrist, anthropologist, etc.). The hybrid creatures we meet inside The Shimmer also fail to impress on any kind of significant scale.
The movie asks some interesting philosophical questions, and Portman’s Lena is a good guide through the fantastical landscape of the story, but Annihilation feels less polished and assured than its predecessor, Ex Machina. It is definitely worthwhile viewing, though, for science-fiction fans looking for something a little different this year.
Annihilation is now playing at the AMC Kent Station 14, AMC Southcenter 16, Century Federal Way, and Renton Landing 14.